A decade on from Sars: Torment of the first patient

In the second of our two-part series marking the 10th anniversary of Sars, the outbreak's first victim recalls its lingering after-effects

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 5:06am

While most people's memories of the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome - which killed 774 people worldwide - are fading, people like Huang Xingchu are still living with its legacy every day.

Huang, a native of Heyuan in Guangdong, was the first person to be diagnosed with what was then thought to be typical pneumonia. Now he is desperate to move on.

The 46-year-old told the South China Morning Post that all he wanted was to disappear from view and run his small restaurant in Heyuan's Linjiang township.

"I have avoided approaching most old friends and workmates I knew for years. And I seldom even go back to my hometown, the village where I grew up," he says. "I just don't want to bring up the matter of the past. I would like to do everything to let the world just forget me."

Much work since the outbreak has focused on finding the real source of Sars. It is believed to have started in bats and spread to humans through the consumption of civet cats.

But Huang was vilified when it was revealed he had been the first human patient to be diagnosed with the disease.

"I was not the origin of Sars, I was a victim," he said. "I have no idea when and where I contracted the illness."

In November 2002, Huang was working as a chef in Shenzhen, cooking up traditional hakka fare for 10,000 yuan (HK$9,400 at the time) per month.

But like many restaurants across the Pearl River Delta, the restaurant also slaughtered and served up exotic meats from time to time - including civet cat.

Huang insists to this day that he had never touched a civet cat before he fell sick that month, with coughing, an aching body and a high fever.

He had to leave the restaurant and return to Heyuan, a city of about 200,000 people in northeastern Guangdong.

Sars began its slow path to global infamy on December 15, the night Huang was admitted to the People's Hospital of Heyuan.

Huang Xiaoqin, a nurse who examined Huang Xingchu, said: "I still remember that winter night when Huang was sent to the emergency room.

"He looked to be in extreme suffering, manic and with a high fever. He vomited and spat all night. All the people in the emergency room were busy taking care of his case."

She added: "We were already confused that first night. The patient was a strong man in his 30s. Why were all the drugs useless in bringing down the fever?"

Two days later, Huang Xingchu was transferred to Guangzhou Military General Hospital, with his fever running at 38.8 degrees Celsius.

He struggled for breath and his body turned blue. At the same time, Huang Xiaoqin was beginning to feel ill herself.

In all, nine medical workers in the Heyuan hospital became infected, alarming the Guangdong provincial authorities.

"We had no idea about the illness when we sent Huang Xingchu to Guangzhou," said Ye Junqiang, who became the first doctor in the world infected with Sars after treating Huang Xingchu.

"We did that because we thought medical conditions would be better in Guangzhou.

"Our medical conditions were not good at that time and our self-protection awareness was much worse."

He added: "We just used a minivan to send Huang to Guangzhou because of a lack of ambulance vehicles."

All those in the vehicle were infected, including the driver.

In the middle of the night on December 24, Ye was roused from a nightmare in which he walked through forests and fields and felt colder than he had ever felt before.

Soon afterwards Ye and eight other medical workers started to cough and develop a similar untreatable pneumonia to that experienced by Huang Xingchu.

On January 1, the Heyuan medical department sent an urgent report to the provincial authorities.

Ye spent the next 80 days, while the world woke up to the threat of Sars as it spread via Hong Kong to 26 countries, in the intensive care unit of Guangdong Military General Hospital. He was finally released on March 23.

"I was snatched from the jaws of death," Ye said. "In the first week there, I breathed over 40 times per minute and with a high fever of 40 degrees. I was manic and incontinent."

Ye was able to return to work soon after, but his health has still not fully recovered.

He said: "I suffered from emphysema between 2003 and 2006. Even now, residual volume [a measure of air retained in the lung after breathing] and fibrosis of my lung is much higher than in ordinary people.

"I cough a lot between October and May every year. Sometimes, I even cough so seriously I scare my patients." Ye added: "I loved playing football before, but now I only watch it on TV."

Ye and Huang Xiaoqin say they have no regrets about their role in helping the first Sars patient, but take the events as a sign of a lack of medical security in the country.

Ye said: "Ten years have passed and few people know we fought against this horrible disease for society. There's no subsidy or fund to help Sars survivors.

"Even though I contracted Sars on the job, I myself have to pay to deal with the after-effects."

Ye has lost contact with Huang Xingchu. To cut his connection with the past, the chef regularly changes his name and switches his mobile phone number. And the restaurant he now runs is registered in the name of another person.

He said: "Have you [the public] ever thought of my suffering and feelings? I'm not Huang Xingchu any more. I'm fed up of being Huang Xingchu.

"I know this year is the 10th anniversary. Recently, I dreamed about the suffering of that year. I was ill and almost dead. The illness cost me all my savings and I lost everything I had."

In the years afterwards, Huang said he was pestered by strangers. People would drop by uninvited at his home in Dongfang village and his family received anonymous phone calls.

Many of the strangers blamed him for inflicting the horrific virus on society. Even the restaurant where he once worked has been forced to close its doors because of the relentless pressure.

Huang said he was jobless for several years despite living anonymously. He paid the bills by selling vegetables at a wet market operating illegally in Heyuan.

Huang said: "It's so hard to get local people to forget my story. Now I can start my life again. What do you [the public] want from me? Close this new restaurant and be hated again? I'm a chef. Please forget me forever."