Why Sars still lingers in the minds of many Hongkongers, 15 years on
Survivors tell of the pain they still live with. Others outgrew their fears, finding the motivation to serve society
They may have been brief stopovers, but they left a deadly mark on Hong Kong history.
On February 21, 2003, a 64-year-old medical professor from Guangzhou in neighbouring Guangdong province checked into the Metropole Hotel in Mong Kok, where he took ill. About three weeks later, a sick Shenzhen man visited his brother at a flat in Block E of the Amoy Gardens estate in Kowloon Bay.
Suffering from a mysterious disease, the professor, later known as “patient zero”, infected other guests who spread it to Hong Kong’s Prince of Wales Hospital and overseas.
At Amoy Gardens, Block E became the centre of a terrifying outbreak of the disease that would kill 299 people in the city out of 1,755 infected.
Medical masks became a way of life for Hongkongers. Travellers avoided the fear-filled city, which came to a standstill. The virus travelled to Southeast Asia and as far as Canada.
It was only later that the World Health Organisation gave the novel and deadly infectious disease a name: Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
The unprecedented health crisis not only highlighted the risks Hong Kong faced as a global transit hub, but also exposed the fragility of the city’s health care system.
Fifteen years on, some survivors tell the Post of the pain they still live with. Others outgrew their fears, finding the motivation to serve society. But the big question is: when the next public health crisis emerges, will Hong Kong be ready?
Charmaine Kwok, 22, child of a Sars victim
“Mom told me over the phone she missed me,” said Charmaine Kwok Ming-wai, 22, recalling some of the final words from her mother, who was quarantined in hospital and eventually succumbed to the disease. “Her voice was very weak at the time.”
Charmaine, just seven at the time, lost her precious mother but gained a new family member: a baby brother. Her mother, who lived in Block E of Amoy Gardens, was heavily pregnant. She received a caesarean section, fearing the potent drugs for treating Sars might harm the unborn baby. She died three weeks after giving birth to a son.
At the time the family gained considerable attention, and received financial support from the We Care Education Fund set up by four female senior officials, including Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was then social welfare director. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, paid them a visit in June that year. A photo of Wen holding the baby boy was telling evidence of how Sars had traumatised the city.
When she was younger, Charmaine kept her personal experience with Sars to herself.
“I wasn’t willing to tell others what I had gone through as I didn’t want sympathy … or to benefit from the experience,” she said, adding she started opening up about her past when she reached senior secondary level.
She is studying business and psychology at Baptist University but plans to concentrate on the latter and study for a master’s after she graduates this summer. She hopes to become a psychologist to help those who face similar experiences.
“I could be drawn closer to people with such experiences, having had similar.”
Charmaine is one of 75 children supported by the fund until they reach 25 years old. It covers expenses for young people whose parents died from Sars.
Her brother, who also keeps a low profile, is now a Form Three pupil.
The fund still has over HK$20 million (US$2.5 million) to support young people who have not completed their education.
Fund co-founder Shelley Lee Lai-kuen, former permanent secretary for home affairs, said 50 of the 75 youngsters had already graduated from university. They are now pursuing different careers, ranging from health care to performing arts.
“These children affected by Sars turned out to be real survivors,” Lee said. “Undaunted and positive. They represent the true spirit of Hong Kong.”
Mary, 71, Sars survivor
Mary was glad to think that death might be closing in when cancer cells were found in her body recently. She said it was because the physical and mental pain from Sars was intolerable.
It was too hard for the 71-year-old Sars survivor, who wished to be identified only by her first name, to forget what brought those pains 15 years ago.
“It is not possible for me to let go of those burdens in my heart, as I’m still suffering the pain every day,” said Mary, who lost her younger brother to the deadly virus.
Her hip joints first started to ache around October 2003, just months after she left Queen Elizabeth Hospital where she was treated for Sars. She was told by doctors that 43 per cent of her bones had developed avascular necrosis – the death of bone tissue caused by a lack of blood supply. The bone disease was linked to the high dose of steroids used to treat Sars.
Mary’s walking improved after she received new hip joints in 2005, but in the next few years she began to develop great pain in her shoulders.
Her hip joints took a turn for the worse last year. Now, she relies on a walking frame and can go at most 30 minutes before needing a break. She was prescribed five types of painkiller, including three with morphine, to relieve her suffering.
The long-lasting physical problems have also affected Mary’s emotions. “Sars affected my legs. I can no longer work and I feel useless. It seems I’m just here waiting to die,” she said.
Mary felt glad when she was told by doctors this month that cancer cells were found in her gallbladder, which was removed by surgery recently.
“Dying is a good thing to me. My bone pain can’t be cured and I rely on painkillers.”
Mary, who drove an ice cream truck for a year before Sars, had thought about becoming a professional driver but the pain put paid to that.
A former Catholic, she lost her faith after the epidemic. “I thought God would know our difficulties … [but if so] why would my younger brother die?” she asked tearfully.
Dr Fung Hong, 60, Sars survivor and former head of a public hospital
As the head of Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin during the Sars epidemic, Dr Fung Hong fought the battle from a bed in an isolation ward. Fung, struck down by the disease himself, said he could not abdicate his role as a leader.
He can still recall the anxious faces of his colleagues 15 years later. Some 300 pairs of eyes stared at him during a staff forum at the beginning of the epidemic.
“I could see anxiety in those eyes,” Fung said. “I had never experienced such a scene before. But as the leader of a hospital, you need to control your emotions and face problems positively.”
He decided to hold a staff forum twice a day, one at lunchtime and the other after working hours. He did so to share the latest arrangements about the epidemic and answer queries from frontline staff on matters such as the supply of protective equipment. The forum ran until no one showed up.
As Fung could not attend meetings in person, professors Joseph Sung Jao-yiu and Sydney Chung Sheung-chee went to the ward every day and told him about the latest developments, he recalled, referring to two of the key figures in the Sars battle.
“We carried on our daily discussions on strategies [towards Sars].”
Although his Sars symptoms were not grave, Fung also experienced conditions such as shortness of breath during his three-week stay in hospital.
After the epidemic, Fung became the first chairman of the Sars Mutual Help Association, a patients’ group providing assistance to survivors.
A keen runner, he still takes part in half-marathons and 10-kilometre races every year. Though his running times have not been as good since Sars, he put it down to his busy working schedule.
“I’m a rather positive person and Sars didn’t leave a mark on me,” Fung said.
He left the Hospital Authority in 2013 and is now spearheading the development of a new private teaching hospital set up by Chinese University of Hong Kong as its chief executive officer.
Fung said a major epidemic would require the efforts of the city’s entire health care system to cope.
Looking back, he said both the system’s hardware and software have improved, which could allow the city to cope with another epidemic.
“Now every hospital is equipped with isolation facilities,” Fung said. “A quicker diagnostic method also allows us to identify a virus within a day, while in the past it took a few days.”
An improved communication system also allows a faster response if a serious event emerges, he noted.