The young mothers did not tell their children that they had the corona virus. Mom worked hard, they said, to save sick people.
Instead, Deng Danjing and Xia Sisi fought for their lives in the same hospitals where they worked. They were feverish and gasped. Within a few weeks, they had gone from healthy medical professionals at the front of the Wuhan, China epidemic to coronavirus patients in critical condition.
The world is still struggling to fully understand the new virus, its symptoms, its distribution and sources. For some, it can feel like a cold. For others, it is a deadly infection that devastates the lungs, speeds up the immune system, and even destroys healthy cells. The difference between life and death may or may not depend on health, age, and patient access to care.
The virus has infected more than 132,000 worldwide. The vast majority of cases were mild with limited symptoms. However, the progression of the virus can be quick. From this point on, the chances of survival decrease. Around 68,000 people have recovered, almost 5,000 have died.
The fate of Ms. Deng and Dr. Xia reflects the unpredictable nature of a virus that affects everyone differently and sometimes opposes statistical averages and scientific research.
When the New Year opened in China, the women lived remarkably similar lives. Both were 29 years old. Both were married and each had a small child with whom she had fallen in love.
Ms. Deng, a nurse, had worked at Wuhan No. 7 Hospital in the city where she grew up and where the coronavirus pandemic started, for three years. Her mother was also a nurse there and in her free time they watched films or did some shopping together. Ms. Deng's favorite pastime was playing with her two pet kittens, Fat Tiger and Little White, the two of which she saved only three months before her illness.
Dr. Xia, a gastroenterologist, also came from a family of doctors. As a small child, she had accompanied her mother, a nurse, to work. She joined Union Jiangbei Hospital in Wuhan in 2015 and was the youngest doctor in her department. Her colleagues called her "Little Sisi" or "Little Sweetie" because she always had a smile for her. She loved the hot pot of Sichuan, a dish known for its stunning hot broth.
When a mysterious new virus hit the city, the women began to work long hours, treating an apparently endless flood of patients. You have taken precautions to protect yourself. But they succumbed to the infection, the highly contagious virus sunk deep into their lungs, causing fever and pneumonia. Everyone deteriorated in the hospital.
One recovered. One didn't.
Beginning of the virus & hospital stay
Ms. Deng, a Wuhaner by birth who liked to make up and hang out at Starbucks with her friends, had worked as a nurse for eight years, following her mother's career path. Dr. Xia, who was popular with the elderly, spent many hours in the hospital treating people suspected of having the virus.
The symptoms appeared suddenly.
Dr. Xia had finished her night shift on January 14 when she was called back to take care of a patient – a 76-year-old man suspected of having coronavirus. She often came to check on him.
Five days later, she felt uncomfortable. Exhausted, she took a two-hour nap at home and then checked her temperature: it was 102 degrees. Her chest felt tight.
A few weeks later, in early February, Ms. Deng, the nurse, was preparing for dinner in the hospital office when the sight of food made her sick. She brushed the feeling aside and found that she was exhausted from work. She had spent the beginning of the outbreak visiting families of confirmed patients and teaching them to disinfect their homes.
After Ms. Deng forced her to eat, she went home to take a shower and then took a nap because she felt dizzy. When she woke up, her temperature was 100 degrees.
Fever is the most common symptom of the coronavirus and occurs in almost 90 percent of patients. About a fifth of people suffer from shortness of breath, often including cough and congestion. Many also feel tired.
Both women rushed to doctors. Breast examinations, according to one study, showed lung damage, a telltale sign of the coronavirus, which is present in at least 85 percent of patients.
In particular, Ms. Deng's CT scan showed what the doctor called matting on her lower right lung – cloudy spots that indicated fluid or inflammation around her airways.
The hospital had no place, so Ms. Deng checked into a hotel to avoid infecting her husband and 5-year-old daughter. She was sweating through the night. At some point her calf twitched. In the morning, she was hospitalized. Her neck was wiped for a genetic test, which confirmed that she had the corona virus.
Her room in a newly opened HR department was small, with two cots and a number that was assigned to everyone. Ms. Deng was in bed 28. Her roommate was a colleague who was also diagnosed with the virus.
At Jiangbei Hospital, 18 miles away, Dr. Xia difficulty breathing. She was taken to an isolation ward and treated by doctors and nurses wearing protective suits and goggles. The room was cold.
Day 1, hospitalization begins
After Ms. Deng was hospitalized, she asked her husband to take care of themselves and reminded him of the 14-day incubation period for the virus. He assured her that his temperature was normal. Dr. Xia asked her husband about the possibility of stopping oxygen therapy soon. He was optimistic.
When Ms. Deng checked into the hospital, she tried to remain optimistic. She wrote a text message to her husband and asked him to wear a mask at home and to clean or throw away all bowls and chopsticks with boiling water.
Her husband sent a photo of one of her cats home. "I'm waiting for you to come back," he said.
"I think it will take 10 days, half a month," she replied. "Take care of yourself."
There is no known cure for Covid-19, the official name for the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Therefore, doctors rely on a cocktail of other medications, mostly antiviral medications, to relieve symptoms.
Ms. Deng's doctor prescribed Arbidol, an antiviral drug to treat the flu in Russia and China. Tamiflu, another internationally popular flu drug; and Kaletra, an HIV drug designed to block replication of the virus. Ms. Deng took at least 12 tablets a day and traditional Chinese medicine.
Despite her optimism, she became weaker. Her mother delivered homemade food outside the station, but she had no appetite. To feed her, a nurse had to come every morning at 8:30 a.m. to connect her to an intravenous drip of nutrients. Another drop pumped antibodies into her bloodstream and another antiviral drug.
Dr. Xia was seriously ill, but seemed to be slowly fighting the infection. Her fever subsided after a few days and she started breathing easier after being connected to a ventilator.
Her mood rose. On January 25, she informed her colleagues that she would recover.
"💪💪💪💪💪💪 I'll be back on the team soon," she wrote on WeChat.
"We need you the most," replied one of her colleagues.
In early February, Dr. Xia her husband Wu Shilei, also a doctor, whether he believed that she could soon stop using oxygen therapy.
"Always calm. Don't be too scared," he replied to WeChat. He told her that the ventilator could possibly be removed the following week.
"I'm always thinking of getting better soon," replied Dr. Xia.
There was reason to believe that she was on the mend. After all, most coronavirus patients are recovering.
Dr. later tested Xia twice negative for the corona virus. She told her mother that she expected to be released on February 8th.
Day 4 to 16 after the hospital stay
At the hospital, Ms. Deng's only point of contact was her roommate and medical staff. She added a caption to a photo with her doctor and said laughing would help drive the disease away. Two tests showed that Dr. Xia was free of the virus, but her condition suddenly worsened.
On Ms. Deng's fourth day in the hospital, she could no longer pretend to be happy. She vomited, had diarrhea, and trembled relentlessly.
Her fever jumped to 101.3 degrees. In the early morning of February 5, she woke up from a restless sleep and found that the medicine had done nothing to lower her temperature. She cried. She said she was classified as seriously ill.
The next day, she vomited three times until she spat white bubbles. She felt hallucinated. She couldn't smell or taste and her heart rate slowed to about 50 beats per minute.
On a phone call, Ms. Deng's mother tried to reassure her that she was young and otherwise healthy and that the virus would go off like a bad cold. But Ms. Deng feared otherwise. "I felt like I was on the verge of death," she wrote the next day in a social media post from her hospital bed.
China defines a seriously ill patient as someone with respiratory arrest, shock or organ failure. According to one of the largest studies on coronavirus cases to date, around 5 percent of infected patients in China became critical. Of these, 49 percent died. (These rates may change as cases are re-examined worldwide.)
While Dr. Xia seemed to be recovering, she was still afraid to die. Tests can be flawed and negative results do not necessarily mean that the patient is clear.
She asked her mother for a promise: could her parents take care of her 2-year-old son if she couldn't make it?
Hoping to dispel her fear with humor, her mother Jiang Wenyan rebuked her: "He is your own son. Aren't you going to raise him yourself?"
Dr. Xia was also worried about her husband. During the video chat, she asked him to put on protective gear in the hospital where he worked. "She said she would wait until I get back safely," he said, "and go back to the front with me when she's recovered."
Then the call came. Dr. Xia's condition had suddenly worsened. In the early morning of February 7, her husband rushed to the emergency room.
Her heart had stopped.
Day 17 after hospitalization
In most cases, the body repairs itself. The immune system produces enough antibodies to get rid of the virus and the patient recovers.
By the end of Ms. Deng's first week in the hospital, her fever had gone. She could eat the food that her mother had delivered. On February 10, when her appetite returned, she looked up photos of meat skewers online and posted them on social media as desired.
On February 15, her throat swab was negative for the virus. Three days later, she tested negative again. She could go home.
Ms. Deng met her mother briefly at the hospital entrance. Then she went home alone because Wuhan was detained without taxis or public transportation.
"I felt like a little bird," she recalled. "My freedom had been given back to me."
She had to isolate at home for 14 days. Her husband and daughter stayed with their parents.
At home, she threw out the clothes she had been wearing in the hospital all the time.
Since then, she has spent the time playing with her cats and watching TV. She jokes that she gets an early impression of retirement. She does deep breathing exercises daily to strengthen her lungs and her cough has faded.
The Chinese government has asked salvaged patients to donate plasma, which experts say contains antibodies that could be used to treat the sick. Ms. Deng contacted a local blood bank shortly after her return.
She plans to go back to work as soon as the hospital allows.
"It was the nation that saved me," she said. "And I think I can pay it back to the nation."
Day 35 after hospitalization
It was some time after 3 a.m. on February 7th when Dr. Xia was taken to the intensive care unit. The doctors intubated them first. Then the hospital president desperately summoned several experts from all over the city, including Dr. Peng Zhiyong, head of the intensive care unit at Zhongnan Hospital.
They called every major hospital in Wuhan to borrow an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or Ecmo machine that does the work of their heart and lungs.
Dr. Xia's heart started beating again. But the infection in their lungs was too severe and they failed. Her brain was out of oxygen and caused irreversible damage. Her kidneys were soon closed and the doctors had to dialyze her around the clock.
"The brain acts as a control center," said Dr. Peng. "She couldn't command her other organs, so those organs would fail. It was only a matter of time."
Dr. Xia fell into a coma. She died on February 23rd.
Dr. Peng remains amazed at why Dr. Xia died after she seemed to be improving. Your immune system, like that of many health workers, may have been affected by constant illness. Perhaps she was suffering from a so-called "cytokine storm", in which the immune system's response to a new virus devoured the lungs with white blood cells and fluid. Maybe she died because her organs were out of oxygen.
Back at Dr. Xia still thinks her son Jiabao – which means an invaluable treasure – that his mother works. When the phone rings, he tries to take it out of his grandmother's hands and shouts: "Mom, mom."
Your husband, Dr. Wu, don't know what to say to Jiabao. He did not resign herself to her death. They had met in the medical school and were each other's first loved ones. They had planned to grow old together.
"I loved her very much," he said. "She's gone now. I don't know what to do in the future, I can only hold on."