The discovery last week that a 50-year-old man in the Nile Delta region of Belqas had tested positive for COVID-19 sparked alarm in Belqas Central Hospital. None of the doctors would agree to escort the patient to the nearest quarantine hospital in Ismailia 150 kilometers away for fear of contracting the highly infectious coronavirus.
So Khaled Hamdy, a pediatrician in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, did what he felt he had to. “I couldn’t just stand by and watch the patient’s relatives weep and plead with God. I decided to escort him regardless of the consequences,” Hamdy says.
Not only was he risking infection, but as a pediatrician, Hamdy was not technically authorized to treat an adult patient and faced possible legal consequences.. “All the doctors in the hospital refused to escort him and his family members were screaming, thinking they would lose him,” Hamdy says. “I thought the patient stood a chance of recovery.”
The Daqhalia Health Directorate now describes Hamdy as a “warrior doctor” and is being celebrated on social media as part of “Egypt’s White Army” — the physicians and medical staff who are on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Egypt currently has 196 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to the Health Ministry. So far, six people have died due to complications from the virus. Despite Hamdy’s efforts, one of them was the man he escorted to receive care under quarantine.
The story began last Wednesday, when the patient arrived at the Belqas hospital suffering from severe difficulty breathing and a high fever, according to Hamdy. He was examined and immediately transferred to intensive care, where he was put on a ventilator. The patient’s condition was rapidly deteriorating, but doctors could not figure out why. When they learned that a relative of the patient had recently returned from Ukraine, they suspected he might have contracted the coronavirus and sent samples for testing. The nurses and doctors dealt with him as a regular pneumonia patient until the test results came back on Saturday.
The discovery caused a great deal of alarm inside the hospital, Hamdy says. The patient hailed from the nearby village of Kardood and was the second confirmed case in the hospital. All the hospital staff who had come into contact with the patient are now under quarantine in the hospital’s residence and are being tested, he said.
There had been other diagnosed cases in the area as well. On March 4, the nearby Mansoura Chest Hospital received an elderly woman from the village of Samahiya, close to the city of Belqas, who was suffering from severe pneumonia. She tested positive for COVID-19 and was transferred to quarantine in Ismailia where she died. Her stepdaughter also tested positive and was transferred to Ismailia.
For any patient to be transferred to quarantine, they must be put on a ventilator and accompanied by a doctor, Hamdy says. When he saw that no doctors were willing to escort the patient, he volunteered.
Hamdy, an emergency medical technician and an ambulance driver donned the safety gear required by the Health Ministry for anyone in contact with COVID-19 patients: an impermeable yellow gown, face mask, N95 respirator, gloves, surgery gown, long plastic boots, large goggles and protective headgear.
They headed out at 7:30 am on Saturday accompanied by a three-car police escort to secure the route and keep the patient isolated from worried family members. Four hours later, they arrived at the Ismailia quarantine facility.
Once the patient was taken inside the hospital, the emergency medical technician and the driver removed their yellow gowns and disposed of them in a designated area. They then each removed one glove and sterilized the car with water and chlorine before removing the rest of the protective gear.
Hamdy handed the patient over to the hospital and went through the required quarantine exit procedures — removing the yellow gown and one glove and exiting the building before taking off the rest of his gear which the hospital would later incinerate. The Ismailia hospital also took samples from Hamdy, the emergency medical technician, and the driver to test for COVID-19.
Hamdy says he didn’t act out of bravery, but out of duty. Yet he doesn’t blame his colleagues for refusing to escort the patient themselves. “I understand their point of view. Had I thought logically, I probably wouldn’t have done what I did,” he says.
He says that the government doesn’t provide even the most basic supplies to doctors. “I used to buy the face mask with money out of my own pocket. It’s only fair that we think a thousand times before exposing ourselves to the slightest infection just to get paid an amount equivalent to three days of work in a respectable private hospital,” he says.
“It’s not just coronavirus. We’re always exposed to diseases,” he says, recalling the story of a colleague who contracted pneumonia and asked the Health Ministry to pay for his treatment in a good hospital. The ministry refused and said he needed to look out for himself.
Another colleague, with whom Hamdy worked closely, also contracted pneumonia and her treatment lasted for two months, through which she didn’t show up to work. After she recovered, hospital management only agreed to count seven days of her absence as sick leave and penalized her for the rest.
“Who would help me if I contracted pneumonia? If it was coronavirus I’d be sent to the quarantine, and if wasn’t I would just get a phone call saying get well soon,” Hamdy says.
Hamdy says the salaries of doctors working in public hospitals is paltry. He effectively receives LE19 a month as compensation for diseases he may catch while on duty, and a long struggle to raise that meager amount to LE21 was unsuccessful.
“When I got married I received a raise of LE2. And when I had my daughter I also got a LE2 raise,” he says. “I’ve been working for the government for 10 years and my salary is about LE2,600. So tell me, why would I put myself at risk?”
Hamdy says that despite taking it on himself to escort the patient when no one else would, he could face legal action because technically, as a pediatrician he was not authorized to escort a 50-year-old patient. “The administrative prosecution could summon me for this infraction,” he says. “They’ll simply tell me ‘what you did was not your role.’”
Hamdy’s lab results returned on Tuesday. He tested negative for COVID-19. The patient he escorted passed away and five of his relatives tested positive on Sunday.