When Lee (not her real name) was finally able to reunite with her son almost two months after he was infected with the coronavirus, she did not expect him to burst into tears when they had to leave the hospital.
The 16-month-old boy was Hong Kong’s youngest Covid-19 patient as the second wave of infections hit the city in March.
He had got used to his temporary home at Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung, and it took a lot of coaxing from his parents and health care workers who helped tend to the child before they could carry him outside the doors.
“I thought he’d be happy to see me ... but it’s almost as if he knew there’s no turning back,” said Lee, who was discharged more than a month earlier than her husband and son. “He was a bit depressed and needed time to adjust [after he got home].”
Hong Kong’s medical workers have stepped up to care for children infected with Covid-19, who are often isolated from their families to protect them from exposure.
Princess Margaret Hospital has admitted 76 children and adolescents confirmed as infected with the coronavirus as of August 28. One is still receiving care.
Healthy parents can choose to stay with infected children who are under the age of eight in hospital. But once the young patient is discharged, the parents are deemed “close contacts” and sent to a quarantine centre for 14 days. Those who also have the virus are arranged to stay in the same ward as their children if possible.
Dr Mike Kwan Yat-wah, a consultant at Princess Margaret’s paediatric infectious diseases unit, said doctors and nurses acted as “surrogate parents” to children separated from their families, and called their parents each day to give them an update.
“It helped alleviate a lot of worries,” he said. “Parents will wait for our call, even if it’s late in the evening, which shows us how important these simple, brief conversations are.”
Children with Covid-19 typically have milder symptoms compared to adults and usually do not require medical treatment. Since they were generally in a stable condition, health care workers would focus on their mental well-being and feelings, said Chan Ying-fei, an advanced practice nurse at the hospital’s infectious disease centre.
She recalls a three-year-old patient – the youngest to stay at Princess Margaret alone – who was assigned to a ward with three other children so they could play together.
“At first the patient was very unhappy and kept crying and pressing the bell [to call for a nurse], so we’d go inside to help set up FaceTime calls with the child’s parents. But after two to three days, the toddler was happily playing with other children and stopped calling mum. In the end it was the patient’s mother who contacted us, asking why her child hasn’t been calling,” Chan said.
“With so many children together, everyone will take care of each other and time flies. The kids will make funny faces through the window to get our attention. They will also show us their drawings and ask us to rate it.”
She said health care workers usually took the initiative to talk to younger patients, who might not know how to express themselves very well. Meanwhile, those who are older, such as returned students from overseas during the second wave of Covid-19 infections, tend not to say a lot.
But they have their own ways of communicating with staff.
“Although we may not interact much with them while they are in hospital, some teenagers secretly left thank you letters on the bedside table or even underneath the pillow,” Chan said.
Hong Kong’s second wave of infections began around mid-March, when the city recorded a spike in cases with travel history. Thousands rushed home to flee virus hotspots in Europe and North America, causing the government to ban most non-residents indefinitely in a bid to curb imported cases.
But Lee was separated from her husband and son because she was admitted to hospital first and could not be transferred to the same ward.
“This was my first time away from my baby so I really missed him,” she said, adding that the internet connection in her ward was weak. “I felt so touched when Dr Kwan bought me a 4G SIM card so I could video call my baby. The card is not worth much, but what it has given me – the chance to see my son – is priceless.”
Lee said she was also grateful to the hospital for allowing her husband to stay behind and take care of the toddler, even after he had qualified for discharge – by testing negative for Covid-19 twice – while their son did not until much later.
“The fact that he didn’t want to leave the hospital showed that he really liked it there,” she said.
For Kwan, going the extra mile to make the process easier for children and their parents is worth it.
“I appreciate and thank the patients for their understanding. People like Lee have the right to be angry or upset that we’re keeping her son in hospital for more than 50 days ... But she appreciates what we’re doing to protect Hong Kong, and that really motivates us,” he said.
Kwan urged parents to get flu shots for their children: “The symptoms of influenza and Covid-19 are very similar. As the winter season comes, it would be helpful to prevent the spread of flu.”
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This article Covid-19 and kids: how Hong Kong cares for city’s young coronavirus patients first appeared on South China Morning Post