Why did a ‘cured’ coronavirus patient die in China? His widow wants answers

Phoebe Zhang

Wang Mei had expected her husband to come home from quarantine this Tuesday.

Her husband, 36-year-old Wuhan bonesetter Li Liang, developed a fever in early February and had been admitted to one of the city’s 16 temporary medical centres set up to treat mild cases of Covid-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus.

Five days after the father-of-one was discharged and certified “cured”, Li was dead, leaving his family bereft and his wife on a hunt for answers.

Wang has been calling local government offices every day for an explanation.

All seemed fine even after Li was admitted to Hanyang Fangcang Hospital on February 12, with the couple keeping in touch with daily video chats.

“He only had a low temperature when he was admitted, only just a bit of coughing,” she said. “In hospital, he took [traditional Chinese] herbal medicine twice a day. Later he even became a volunteer at the hospital, moving supplies.”

About 10 days later, Li had two swab tests and both came back negative for the coronavirus.

But he also had a CAT scan, the results of indicated that Li’s lungs had been damaged and not fully recovered, independent medical experts said.

According to a copy of the CAT scan report, Li’s lungs had “scattered shadows with high density, most with ‘ground-glass’ opacities, some with reticular opacities” as well as “small lung nodules in bilateral lower lobes”. It recommended that he be re-examined.

Doctors consulted by the South China Morning Post said it would be difficult to tell from the CAT scan alone whether a patient had recovered.

Instead, three days after the CAT scan, Li was discharged to a temporary quarantine centre at the Vienna Hotel in line with diagnostic guidelines for discharged patients.

According to Wang, Li was in high spirits in the first few days after he settled in at the temporary centre. He exercised every morning and took the herbal medicine as prescribed by the doctors.

But at around February 28, he told Wang his mouth felt dry and his stomach bloated, and he lost appetite. He consulted the doctors about his condition, but was told that it was normal after taking the medicine, telling him to drink more water and eat more fruit.

Three days later, on Sunday, Wang called Li again but he could only speak for a few minutes before he ended the call to rest. Wang said she did not suspect too much, because doctors checked in on all the patients every day to take their temperature.

On Monday, during the daily morning check, Li’s temperature wasn’t high. While on a video chat, Wang heard the doctors tell her husband to put on more clothes and get some breakfast.

She didn’t hear back until 3pm, when staff called Wang to go to the hotel, saying Li seemed “stressed”.

She found her husband lying on the bed unable sit up. As she held him he told her that he wanted to go home.

Wang called for help and medical personnel in protective gear came. They checked Li’s pupils and asked Wang to call the ambulance.

“He had been recovering fine, why did I need to call the ambulance within 10 minutes of my arrival? I was so anxious that I even dialled the number wrong the first time,” she said.

As other patients came and helped Wang call the ambulance, Wang felt her husband’s body go cold and his breathing weaken. Soon after they arrived at the nearby Puai Hospital, the doctors there told Wang that her husband had died and gave her the death certificate. She cried at the hospital for hours, until staff from the funeral home came to collect the body.

Li Liang’s death certificate. Photo: Handout

Li’s death has clouded hopes of a reprieve for the city.

By March, thousands of patients had been discharged from Wuhan’s makeshift hospitals and one of them had been shut down.

Epidemiologists had been hopeful that the spread of the disease in China had turned a corner. On Thursday, a senior researcher said that there may be no more new cases in mainland China, except in Hubei, by mid-March, and Wuhan hopefully would not have daily new cases in late March.

But, according to Jiemian News, Li’s death prompted a number of city’s makeshift hospitals to suspend plans to discharge the patients, pending new blood tests.

In the meantime, Wang has appealed to government offices and community centres for answers. She wants an explanation for her husband’s death and wonders why he was not sent back tohospital earlier.

“On March 1, he already felt under the weather. On March 2, I watched him pass away, how can that happen?” she said. “They didn’t even try to resuscitate him.”

She said staff should have paid attention when her husband showed signs he was unwell.

An employee at the reception desk for the Vienna Hotel said that only the local health commission was authorised to answer questions about Li’s death. Repeated telephone calls to the commission office went unanswered.

Wang is not optimistic about getting answers any time soon. Community officials in her area said they would need to report the case to their superiors. A previous report from Shanghai-based news portal The Paper about the death of her husband has since been removed from the paper’s website. A similar report by news site Caixin has also been withdrawn.

Li was the backbone of the family and had always been healthy, she said.

“Our lives have been turned upside down,” Wang said. “No matter what happens, I want an answer [for his death].”

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