TANJUNG BUNGAH: While the number of Covid-19 cases steadily decreases and hordes of Malaysians pack their swimsuits and beach balls for Langkawi, a doctor at the Penang General Hospital tells FMT that the battle against the coronavirus is nowhere near over.
“The situation is quite critical in the Penang hospital where most of the wards had to be converted into Covid-19 wards to accommodate the increasing number of patients,” says Dr Shamesh Baskaran, 33.
August was one of the darkest months for Penang when the state recorded the highest number of cases per 100,000 people in the country.
Patients flooded the ICU wards and Shamesh and his medical team, critically understaffed by this point, desperately appealed for help as they scrambled to find beds and oxygen tanks for the most critically ill among the patients.
Physically worn-out and emotionally drained by the sight of so much death and despair, the medical personnel at the hospital were immensely relieved to see military trucks roll in on Sept 15.
Under the watchful eye of Lt Kol Dr Mohd Zamri Derahman, 39, the army personnel of Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM) set to work immediately, transforming the hospital’s car park area into a fully-functioning field hospital.
Mega tents were pitched while light fixtures and air conditioning units were installed at a frenzied pace. By Sept 24, the field hospital, now called Hospital Medan Angkatan Tentera Pulau Pinang, was ready to admit its first Covid-19 patient by nightfall.
He explains that the general hospital still receives a steady stream of patients seeking medical attention for other ailments as theirs is the only governmental specialist hospital in Penang island.
“As the wards are limited to them, it’s an unfair situation when they have nowhere else to go,” he explains, adding that many patients can ill afford treatment at private hospitals.
He said the hospital’s current predicament prompted the idea of an army field hospital and with 100 beds, Medan Angkatan Tentera Pulau Pinang is the largest such hospital in Malaysia.
When asked how healthcare personnel have coped with the pandemic since March last year, Shamesh says it has been heart-wrenching to see so many patients admitted with symptoms, only to eventually give up the fight when the virus got too much to bear.
“Initially, there were many emotional situations, especially when we had to break bad news to family members,” Shamesh says, remembering one particularly heart-breaking scene when a daughter had to say goodbye to her bed-ridden mother as she was wheeled into the ICU.
“Both of them cried on the video call,” he says, admitting his eyes welled-up as well.
As one of the first ever frontliners on site at the field hospital, the past few days have been hectic for Shamesh and his team.
While the decreasing number of Covid-19 infections in Penang has given people hope that the end is near, Shamesh warns that it’s not time to let one’s guard down.
He says many of Penang’s senior citizens are still unvaccinated and that most of those admitted at the moment, are 60- to 70-year-olds who had not received their shots.
He advises those still sceptical about getting vaccinated to seek medical advice as the decreasing number of cases in the country is proof that the vaccines do work.
“My advice to the general population is to please get your parents and yourself vaccinated as there are already walk-in centres everywhere,” he says.
For now, the struggle still goes on for healthcare personnel as they attend to the hundreds in their care infected with the coronavirus.