Living in the shadows
Part 3 Grief and recovery
Time heals all wounds, says the age-old maxim. But five years after Sars ravaged Hong Kong, many victims and the families of those who lost the battle against the virus still suffer the effects of the disease.
The story of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the deep emotional and physical scars it left are epitomised by former Sars sufferer Lee Kit-kwan. 47. The mother of three is one of the 158 recovered Sars patients in Hong Kong who have been diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a disease that stops blood flow to the bones.
Despite facing a daily battle against the debilitating illness, which is a side effect of the massive doses of steroids used to treat Sars patients, the Wong Tai Sin resident now appears upbeat about the future. 'Bygones are bygones. You have to live anyway, so why not live happily?' she said with a smile.
Even though Ms Lee appears to be strong and happy, it has taken her nearly four years to emerge from the shadow of Sars and begin putting her life back together. 'In the past four years, I've not been able to share my Sars experience with anyone,' she said. 'I break down whenever I talk about Sars. I still get shivers and tremble when it comes to March 28 every year - the day I was admitted to hospital. It was only in the middle of last year that I started to open up and become more optimistic after strengthening my faith by attending more Buddhism lessons.
'I formally returned to work last September. And now I feel brave enough to tell you my story.'
Ms Lee contracted the disease while working as a staffer at ParknShop in Amoy Gardens in March 2003, the month when Hong Kong's daily rate of new infections reached more than 100. In late March, Amoy Gardens became the centre of the Sars storm, with the United Christian Hospital admitting 15 suspected cases in one day and the government serving an isolation order on Block E of the estate.
Ms Lee was discharged from hospital in May, thinking the fight of her life was behind her. But a month later she faced another life-changing battle.
Ms Lee said the diagnosis of bone necrosis was a shattering moment, recalling days of feeling hollow and broken. 'No one will understand how depressed I was. I have been living in the dark ever since.' She said words could hardly express the fear and psychological pain she suffered at the time. 'I felt completely useless. I couldn't work or do any household chores.'
She became withdrawn and disconnected from society during the two years that she could only walk with crutches. 'I didn't want to meet or talk to anyone,' she said. 'I also felt myself becoming unhinged. I was jealous whenever I saw my husband having a good sleep. There were times when I kept him awake just to stay up with me.'
But the strengthening of her religious faith, family care, and a gradual return to work has pulled Ms Lee back from the abyss. 'I think nothing can heal the wounds left behind by Sars. But I believe, nevertheless, you have to find your own way to get on with your life,' she said. 'For me, going to work and seeing my colleagues lightens the load. I can't say I have completely walked out of the shadows, but at least I feel much happier than before.'
Another tale of the Sars epidemic comes from the long-time chairman of the Sars-struck Amoy Gardens joint committee, Ip Hing-kwok, who said the epidemic had strengthened his attachment to the estate.
Mr Ip, who has held the post since 1989, said nothing could have prepared him for the onset of the Sars virus, which killed 42 residents of the housing estate.
Mr Ip risked his own life by remaining active in the estate during the height of the infection, holding meetings and trying to calm residents in the face of mounting fatalities. 'As a chairman, I had no choice but to fulfil my obligation to help the residents. And I was so upset to see the estate turned into a dead city. After all, I have been living here for 20 years,' he said.
'Everyone discriminated against us at that time. I remembered shortly afterwards how I went with my family for yum cha in Telford Garden. The customers quickly fled when they learnt that we lived in Amoy Gardens.'
Today, Amoy Gardens has returned to relative normality. Business has picked up in the estate mall. The external walls of each block were repainted with a bright colour and lobbies are being renovated.
'After the epidemic, I pledged to restore the estate's image. I can always afford to move to another housing estate, but I won't do so. There are too many memories and feelings attached to this place.'
Another of the many people still rebuilding their lives is 58-year-old Sit Pui-yu, also of Wong Tai Sin, who said he lost his beloved mother to the virus and was battling to have her death recognised as being due to Sars.
His mother, Cheung Lee, 80, died on May 19, 2003, after being admitted to Tuen Mun Hospital with breathing difficulties. Mr Sit said she contracted the disease during her stay in the hospital.
'Though it's been so many years, I still can't get over the day when my mother was admitted to hospital and the day she was cremated. The fragmented memories keep floating through my mind every day,' he said as he looked at a photograph of his mother.
One of the things that has upset him most is that he was unable to give her a proper funeral. He recalls how hospital staff said his mother's body had to be wrapped in plastic bags to prevent the spread of the disease. She was then placed in a sealed coffin and was sent to Kwai Chung Crematorium.
'The day she was cremated was one day I will never forget. My mother raised me and my four siblings in hardship. She deserved a formal funeral. It is a knot which can never be untied,' he said.
The stress of the Sars epidemic also cost Mr Sit his marriage and his job.
He said that he resigned from work in a restaurant shortly after his mother was admitted to the hospital. His wedding ceremony was also cancelled after his mother died and the relationship with his prospective spouse later failed. 'I lost my marriage, my job and my health. I am still single, jobless and with no money.'
Mr Sit has battled emotional upheaval and psychological problems since the trauma and is still receiving psychiatric help. 'I have suffered from depression since my mother's death, I can't sleep well at night and I have to rely on sleeping pills,' he said.
Mr Sit also claimed that he had been treated unfairly as the cause of death on his mother's death certificate was not stated as Sars, which meant he was ineligible to apply for financial aid from the Sars trust fund.
In recent years he has appeared at different public functions, chanting slogans and claiming the government at the time was trying to cover up the scale of the outbreak by manipulating the number of Sars deaths.
His high profile on newspapers and television has affected his relationship with his siblings. 'The epidemic has completely ruined my life,' he said.