A home away from home

Above The wall room of the field hospital. Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut

A thermometer read 38.2C when I measured my body temperature.

I had a fever, my body was aching, and I started to cough. I went to see a doctor for a Covid-19 test but instead, I got antibiotics and fever relief medicines. Soon, my nose started to lose the sense of smell and I felt tired easily, even when walking slowly.

I had Covid-19. The virus hit me five days before my first vaccine. Here is my story.

At the age of 76, I am a healthy elderly without any health issues. I regularly walk and do arm swing exercises. Every day, I wake up before dawn to offer alms to monks and open my shophouse selling snacks and daily use products like typical mom-and-pop stores in the quiet suburban areas of southern Bangkok.

When I learnt that I had Covid-19 last month, I wondered if I would be admitted to a field hospital (at that time, home isolation was not an option and Covid-19 antigen test kits were not yet available). I separated my living area from two other members of my family.

Left The recreation area. Photo courtesy of GOVERNMENT HOUSE

I had lost my appetite but had to force myself to eat so that I could take medicine. I took four capsules of fah talai jon (green chiretta) four times a day and drank krachai (finger root) herbal drink mixed with lime juice all day while waiting for a hospital bed. After five days of home therapy, I was still coughing but the fever was gone and my nose could smell the aromatic gravy sauce of khao mu daeng (rice with red pork and sauce). My tongue was also able to taste its sweet and salty flavour. It was the first time in five days that I enjoyed food and finished my meal.

My phone rang in the morning on the sixth day and I was informed that I would be admitted to Budsarakam Hospital in Nonthaburi. I packed clothes for 14 days along with my personal stuff.

An ambulance of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) Emergency Medical Service Centre (also known as the Erawan Centre) stopped at the front of my shophouse, alarming all the neighbours. They now knew why my shophouse was closed and no one left the house for almost a week.

When I got on the van, I was the only passenger. The ambulance picked up two more Covid-19 patients after me and took us to the field hospital. Male and female patients stayed in separate halls and there were many patients waiting in the queue before me. When it was my turn, a doctor asked about my health and ordered a chest x-ray. A nurse asked me if I have a Line ID so that they can send further communications. I showed them my simple phone which I rarely used besides calling my friends and relatives from time to time.

I do not know how to use social media or any mobile phone apps so when my relative told me that they saw pictures of me dragging my luggage while walking to the ambulance on the Facebook page of the BMA’s PR Department, I was amazed. My relatives tried to contact BMA but their emails bounced back. They tried other ways too, including contacting the BMA governor’s team and his spokesman through public Line IDs.

Partitions separate the beds where guests sleep. Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

Finally, the photos were removed after two days of complaining. I did not mind if the rescue team took my pictures for their report. I thanked them for transporting me to the hospital but I also wanted the BMA’s team to respect my privacy. BMA officials should have known that posting pictures of patients without their consent was wrong.

Back at the field hospital, I was categorised into a group of patients with mild symptoms. I was guided to my assigned bed by a volunteer whom I later learnt was also a Covid-19 patient. The field hospital did not have enough hands to oversee thousands of patients every day (the hospital has 3,000 beds) so there were groups of jit asa or patients who volunteer to help newcomers.

Everyone received a survival pack. Inside were items one may need for daily life such as soap, shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a cup, a pack of instant noodles and a stack of facial masks. We were required to wear masks all the time even when we slept. I was lucky that I did not have a problem sleeping with the lights on. But I could hardly stand the cold.

I did not pack a jacket with me and also forgot a denture adhesive cream. Due to old age, I could not enjoy food without dentures. My granddaughter knew about my problems so she tried to send me my sweater and cream. At first, the request was denied because only personal medicines are allowed but when a nurse knew that without those items, my stay would be a bit difficult, she finally approved my request.

Partitions separate the beds where guests sleep. Photo courtesy of GOVERNMENT HOUSE

Life in the field hospital was quite comfortable and simple. Meals were delivered to my bed three times a day by jit asa patients. Every morning, they would check my body temperature and blood pressure. My meal was packed in an eco-friendly disposable container and covered with lids. I finished every single meal because I did not want to waste food. Besides, the food was tasty. Hot drinks were also available and snacks and cold drinks were provided in vending machines. A recreation zone was also available for us to watch TV. I sometimes sat in an area arranged like an outdoor resting zone. We could also borrow books to read and Buddhist prayers were broadcast throughout the hall around 6pm daily.

Regarding the cleanliness of the facility — you may have recently seen or heard on media that some patients complained about dirty toilets — I think it is our personal responsibility to care for public facilities. During my stay, I did not see any maids nor housekeepers. It was everyone’s duty to care for the place and keep it clean.

I swept the floor in the ward that I stayed in from time to time and some patients volunteered to clean toilets. Others helped in delivering food and medicines like Favipiravir, which I received after my second chest x-ray. I underwent three chest x-rays and a nurse, who came with a bicycle, took my blood for testing two times during my stay.

I did not know the result of my blood tests or chest x-rays but I thought it was OK as I was discharged after spending about 12 nights in the field hospital. When a nurse called to ask if I was ready to return home, I was more than ready. She even teased me that they had to let me go before I finished off their food. I was told to isolate myself for another 14 days at home. I said goodbye to my new five-year-old friend and his mother before leaving. He gave me a wave and a big smile behind his mask.

Challenger Hall was transformed to Budsarakam Hospital. Photo: Chanat Katanyu

Staying in the field hospital was like living in a small community. We came from different parts of Bangkok and spoke different languages as the hospital always made their announcements in Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao. Although we were strangers to one another, we could be kind. Yes, we were sick but we could perform our daily activities and take care of the place we stayed in. It does not hurt to extend our hand as helping each other is what we can do regardless of where we are.