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Elaine Ly with her mother Lien Ly. Both women contracted Covid-19. Photo: Elaine Ly

Coronavirus survivors: I fought Covid-19 with a Hong Kong karate champ while mum was in a coma in the UK

  • South China Morning Post journalist Elaine Ly spent a month in a Hong Kong hospital after testing positive for Covid-19
  • On the other side of the world, her mother was also battling the disease, on a ventilator
As a journalist, you want to report the story – you never want to be the story. So after weeks of covering the coronavirus crisis, it was a shock to learn I had tested positive for Covid-19.

Unfortunately, though I did not know it at the time of my diagnosis, my story with the disease would soon be taking an even darker turn when it left my 73-year-old mother Lien comatose and struggling for her life.

I had arrived in Hong Kong from Britain on Monday March 23, following a holiday to see my family in Birmingham. The minute the plane landed, my phone blew up with messages about the coronavirus, including an ominous one telling me that loss of taste or smell was a symptom. As I had been experiencing just such a loss, I lined up for a voluntary test before I left the airport. I took the test home and sent it off a couple of days later.

On Friday evening, I received a call from a local number my phone did not recognise. When I picked it up a lady on the other end asked me whether I had been near anybody else since I had arrived back in Hong Kong. When I replied that I hadn’t, she informed me I had tested positive for Covid-19.

Within 48 hours, two health workers in full hazmat suits arrived at my front door and took me to the Prince of Wales Hospital. The ward was hectic, but when the door of my isolation cubicle shut behind me a sense of tranquillity descended. It was not to last.

SCMP journalist Elaine Ly spent 28 days in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19. Photo: Elaine Ly

After an uncomfortable but quick nasal and throat test, I was left to my own devices and even managed to sleep after FaceTiming my mum, who mentioned she had a light headache. I reassured her that my case was mild and that I would be moved to another hospital the next morning.

When I woke the next day, there were 213 notifications in my family chat group, one of them telling me that “mum is going into the hospital”. My hand was shaking as I frantically scrolled down, desperately hoping one of the messages would tell me she was OK.

As I was being transferred to the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in Tai Po, I drew the curtains and wept quietly as I reread time and again one particular message: “Her lips were blue as she went into the ambulance”.

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I felt so painfully helpless. Even if I didn’t want to receive treatment, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave.

My mind wandered back to my holiday and how I had chosen to self-isolate from my mum in an effort to keep her safe. I had caught a glimpse of her on just one occasion, when she yelled at me from across the street: “Heat up the pho and don’t spill the fish sauce everywhere!”

After a few hours, my brother Danny called. I pressed my phone to my ear but could still barely hear him above the doctors in the room who were shouting through their N95 masks.

I drew back the curtains for the first time and shouted, “My mum is in a coma. Be quiet so I can hear this call.”

Elaine Ly spent 28 days in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19. Photo: Elaine Ly

In that moment, as my puffy bloodshot eyes met the glare of three other patients and a doctor, all I heard was: “Mum has got Covid, she is in a critical condition, she is terribly unwell and needs a lot of oxygen.”

I broke down in front of this bunch of strangers who were, in the most unexpected of turns, to become my support system for the next month.

Over the next few days, I received endless messages and calls from friends, but when you are crippled by the anxiety of not knowing how your own mother is doing, the last thing you want to do was talk about your own mild case. I only had the bandwidth to handle updates about my mum and to speak to friends who were doctors and could break down the medical jargon for me.

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I found myself studying, trying to learn everything I could about the virus. The daily death toll alerts tortured me. I worked in the news, and I had made news, but now I had to shut it out – it was simply too frightening.

I got snappier as the continuous prodding and poking of the tests continued. I needed two consecutive negative results for my sputum and nasal samples before I could be discharged.

Some patients had their poop tested. The miscellaneous black jars around the ward made me flinch. Days passed in a relentless waiting game, but things improved when my ward 6E admitted a karate champion. Her daily exercise routine kept the energy of the room positive and ultimately her focus and tenacity became a source of strength for me as well.
Hong Kong karate athlete Tsang Yee-ting brightened things up in Elaine’s ward. Photo: Handout

But there were many low points too. Three weeks into my stay at the hospital, Danny informed me the doctors had “tried to wean mum off the ventilator but she struggled – they’ll have to try again tomorrow”. Just as that message was sinking in, the results of my latest test came through: I was still positive.

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The next day, I was buoyed somewhat when my karate ward mate Yee-ting was given the all clear, but when it came time to say goodbye I was reminded that while she would be leaving, I would not. I thought about my mum, still on the ventilator, and cocooned myself in negative thoughts. My sorry vegetative state irritated Yee-ting, who forced me to exercise away the gloom. As we were working up a sweat, we were interrupted by a FaceTime call from my brother, who had clearly been crying. At this point, mum had been in a coma for 14 days. My heart sank in anticipation of what he was about to say.

But Danny surprised me. “They’ve managed to get mum off her ventilator, she remains in intensive care, and it’ll take awhile to regain consciousness.”

I slept that night for a straight seven hours for the first night since I had arrived. Even the glaring lights of the hospital could not stop me.

Elaine Ly, who has fully recovered from her coronavirus ordeal. Photo: Stephanie Chan

On my 23rd day in hospital, Danny told me mum’s first words after she came off the ventilator had been: “I’m thirsty. Is Elaine still in hospital?”

That evening, I basked in the sunset as it beamed gently through the hospital window. Hospital life no longer affected me.

I had been in hospital almost a month when I received what would turn out to be my final set of test results. I kept quiet, not wanting the suspense to build. It was nice just to be stable for a moment. I knew that regardless of the result, my story would not truly be over until I had heard from my mum.

At that moment, I looked down at my phone to see an incoming FaceTime call. The screen read “mummy”. I answered the call as the nurse read out my results. Day 28 was a glorious one.

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