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Nurse returns to the front lines to do her part: After assisting patients during the MERS outbreak in 2015, Kim Hyun-ah knew she could help in Daegu

Mar 27,2020
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Nurse Kim Hyun-ah puts on a hazmat suit on March 17 before entering the intensive care unit of Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center in Daegu. Kim also worked as a nurse treating patients during the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, outbreak five years ago. [KEIMYUNG UNIVERSITY DONGSAN MEDICAL CENTER]
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Messages of support for medical workers working at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center fill up a bulletin board at the hospital. [YONHAP]
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With the coronavirus outbreak turning into a pandemic affecting the whole globe, the news can get overwhelming, and it is easy to feel a bit helpless. The “Helping Hand” series shares stories of people doing what they can to assist their neighbors in the midst of crisis.

In 2015, when Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) spread across the country, a nurse named Kim Hyun-ah touched the heartstrings of many with a sincere letter that she wrote to the JoongAng Ilbo, detailing her experience working to fight the potentially deadly virus at Hallym University Medical Center in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi.

Five years later, she’s back to putting on a hazmat suit every morning at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center, one of the first medical institutions in Daegu that dedicated its resources and facilities to treating novel coronavirus patients.

“It hurts me to see Daegu’s popular Seomun Market so empty,” said Kim. “I swore to myself that I’ll stick around and help treat the patients until my new white slip-ons wear off. I thought I’ll be here for about two weeks before coming down, but I think I’ll have to stay at least for one more month. I don’t want to have any regrets.”

Kim began working at the Dongsan Medical Center on March 13, after it had become an exclusive treatment center for the virus that has engulfed the world in recent weeks. During a telephone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on March 17, Kim said that she purchased a pair of indoor slip-ons at Seomun Market near the hospital for 7,000 won ($5.70) and made a pledge to herself. Recalling a patient who died of MERS in front of her eyes five years ago, she said she promised that she would never let that happen ever again.

Five years ago, Kim looked after MERS patients in the intensive care unit of Hallym University Medical Center. In the letter Kim wrote to the JoongAng Ilbo that was published on June 12, 2015, she said she will “make sure that MERS doesn’t get anywhere near my patients and I’ll cling onto every patient and never let go so that the angel of death can’t take them away.” Her letter drew tears from many of the readers and encouraged those who were becoming weary of combating the virus. The country declared an end to MERS in the summer of 2015, and Kim left the hospital in 2017 to pursue a career as a writer. But upon witnessing the situation in Daegu, she decided to come back and help her fellow medical workers.

“I think all nurses would feel the same way,” Kim said. “Many of the people I went to school with also contacted me saying that they want to join.”

But it wasn’t easy for Kim to receive the approval of her mother, who lives in Daegu. When Kim was treating MERS patients five years ago, she said there was not a single day her mother was not on pins and needles, worrying that her daughter may get infected.

“I hesitated a bit because of my mother,” Kim said. “But I knew deep in my heart that I had to go because otherwise, I would regret for the rest of my life.”

When she took her first steps into Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center, she said she was full of concerns about whether she would be of any help. But an officer at the hospital’s entrance soothed her.

“I said, ‘I’m here to provide medical aid,’ and as soon as I said that, the officer’s face lit up and they greeted me wildly, saying that I could park anywhere I wanted,” said Kim.

When she finally saw what was going on with her own eyes, she said it was tougher than she anticipated.

According to Kim, one N95-rated mask is handed out to each medical worker every morning upon entering the hospital. When the day’s over, they are given a KF95 mask to wear after providing a signature. Even the hazmat suits are running out. At the hospital, there are many volunteer and dispatched workers besides the medical staff. The medical workers who have come from other parts of the country are provided with a place to stay and payment, but those who work for Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center do not get any extra pay for their work.

“In the mornings and afternoons when there’s a large influx of newly infected patients, it’s usually the hospital’s medical team that handles the load,” said Kim. “I think their devotion is quite unknown, and I feel sorry about that.”

On the first day of her duty, Kim, wearing a D-level head-to-toe hazmat suit, worked for seven hours in a general ward where 40 patients with mild symptoms were hospitalized. She was responsible for administering medication and checking on the conditions of the patients. Several patients told her that their “heart stings” or they couldn’t “breathe properly.” Some had to be transferred to a different ward for critical condition patients if they showed signs of hypoxemia caused by low blood oxygen levels. It gets busier in the ward when there are patients with dementia. The nurses work around the clock to try to calm the screaming patients, not to mention cleaning up their feces.

But the medical aids on the front lines at the Dongsan Medical Center have worked hard despite their fatigue and anxiety. According to Kim, “It’s the self-confidence we have that we can protect our patients that allows us to endure everyday.” The endless messages of support for those working at the scene are also easing the pain, according to Kim. Everyday, lunch boxes, snacks and nutritional supplements pour in to the hospital.

“I had rice balls for dinner last night that were sent from Gwangju,” said Kim. “They were so good. There are so many messages on the bulletin boards of the hospital lounges that cheer us up too.”

Kim’s duty at the moment is working in the intensive care unit overnight. There, she even has to wear a powered air-purifying respirator on top of a hazmat suit.

“We have to work in groups of two to check each other’s respirators because the filters often get loose,” said Kim. “Since most patients in the intensive care unit are in critical condition, I want to help them. Since I’m familiar with most of the medical equipment in the intensive care unit, like respirators and so on, I have no problem working here.”

But Kim says there’s one area on which she wants people to focus.

“As I am here and see things, I believe the virus will come to an end soon,” she said. “All the nurses working here are having a hard time, but we are so proud to be here. The support we received from the public helped us a lot to endure during MERS, and we feel an even larger amount of support these days. But one thing I would like to point out is that many of the medical personnel here are receiving very limited financial aid and support and many people are unaware of that.”

BY JUNG JONG-HOON [sharon@joongang.co.kr]



메르스 전사 김현아가 돌아왔다, 이번엔 대구 저승사자 잡는다

“서문시장이 너무 썰렁해 마음이 아팠습니다. 실내화가 다 닳아 없어질 때까지 환자를 봐야겠다는 다짐을 했어요. 원래는 2주 근무를 생각하고 왔는데, 익숙해질 즈음 그만두면 후회될 거 같아서 한 달까지 바라보고 있습니다."

'메르스(MERS·중동호흡기증후군) 전사' 김현아(46) 간호사가 신종 코로나바이러스 감염증(코로나19) 전사로 돌아왔다. 김 간호사는 16일 코로나19 전담병원인 계명대 대구동산병원 근무를 시작했다. 김 간호사는 17일 중앙일보와 통화에서 "대구에 와서 병원 근처 서문시장에서 7000원짜리 근무용 실내화를 사면서 각오를 다졌다"고 말했다. 김 간호사는 5년 전 눈앞에서 숨진 메르스 환자를 떠올리며 다시는 그런 일이 일어나지 않게 하겠다고 다짐했다고 한다.

그는 2015년 당시 코호트 격리된 경기도 동탄성심병원 중환자실에서 환자들을 돌봤다. '메르스가 내 환자에게 다가오지 못하게 끝까지 저승사자를 물고 늘어지겠다'는 편지를 써서 메르스에 지친 국민에게 큰 용기를 줬다. 메르스를 이겨낸 김 간호사는 2017년 여름 병원을 떠나 작가로 변신했다. 2년여 만에 그가 다시 신종 감염병 현장에 돌아왔다. 대구의 최악의 상황이 그를 움직였다. 그는 "간호사라면 다 똑같은 마음이라고 생각한다. 주변 후배들로부터 대구에 가고 싶다는 연락이 이어졌다"고 말했다.

대구에 사는 어머니를 설득하는 게 쉽지 않았다. 메르스 당시 어머니는 환자를 돌보던 딸이 혹여 감염될까 봐 마음을 졸였다. 김 간호사는 "망설이긴 했지만 안 가면 후회할 거 같았다. 정말 가고 싶은 생각에 결심했다"고 말했다. 16일 대구동산병원으로 처음 들어설 때 '잘할 수 있을까'란 걱정이 앞섰다. 하지만 출입 통제 담당 직원이 그의 마음을 풀어줬다. "의료 지원 나왔다"고 말하자 직원 표정이 환해졌다고 한다. 김 간호사를 격하게 반기면서 "의료 지원 나온 분들은 아무 데나 편한 곳에 주차하면 된다"고 안내했다.

막상 현장에 가보니 상황이 녹록지 않았다. 의료진을 위한 N95 마스크는 근무 들어갈 때 하나씩 손에 쥐여줬다. 퇴근할 때도 본인 서명을 받고 KF94 마스크 1개만 배분했다. 환자 치료에 필수적인 방호복 재고도 여유가 없다.

병원에는 기존 의료진뿐 아니라 자원봉사자, 파견 근무자들이 여럿이다. 그나마 외부 의료진들은 숙소 제공, 수당 지급 등에서 사정이 나은 편이지만, 원래 병원에 있던 이들은 별다른 보상이 없다고 했다. 김 간호사는 "신규 확진자가 몰리고 일이 많이 생기는 오전에서 낮까지는 기존 근무자들이 대부분 소화한다. 이들의 희생이 잘 알려지지 않은 걸 보면 오히려 내가 미안하다"고 말했다.

근무 첫날 김 간호사는 레벨D 방호복을 입고 경증환자 40명이 입원한 일반 병동에서 7시간가량 일했다. 환자 투약과 건강 체크 등을 맡았다. 누군가는 가슴이 따끔거린다고, 다른 이는 숨 쉴 때 가슴이 턱 막히는 느낌이 든다고 했다. 중증으로 넘어갈 듯한 환자도 한두명 눈에 띄었다. 혈중 산소 농도가 떨어지고, 혈압도 떨어지는 식이다. 치매 환자 병실은 더 바쁘다고 했다. 의료진이 온종일 소리 지르는 걸 달래고, 대변 보면 치워야 한다.

하지만 최일선의 의료진들은 피로·불안을 넘어섰다. 환자를 지킨다는 자신감과 자부심으로 버티고 있다고 한다. 응원 행렬도 의료진의 어깨를 가볍게 한다. 매일 도시락, 간식거리, 영양제 등이 쏟아진다. 김 간호사는 "어제(16일) 저녁밥으로 광주에서 보내준 주먹밥을 먹었다. 5·18 어머니들이 만들어준 것이었는데 맛이 좋았다. 휴게실에는 응원 편지가 가득하다"고 말했다.

17일 밤 늦게 중환자실로 간다. 이곳에선 방호복에다 공기를 정화해주는 전동식 호흡보호구(PAPR)까지 착용하고 일해야 한다. 그는 "필터 등이 빠지기 쉬워서 2인 1조로 서로 장비를 확인해줘야 한다. 중환자실은 생과 사를 오가는 분들이 많으니 그분들에게 도움이 되고 싶다. 인공호흡기·에크모(ECMO, 체외산소순환장치) 등은 메르스 때 많이 다뤄봐서 문제는 없을 거 같다"고 했다.

5년 전 '메르스 전사' 김현아 간호사가 코로나19와 싸우기 위해 대구로 내려갔다. 17일 대구동산병원 중환자실 근무에 앞서 방호복 등 보호 장비를 착용한 김 간호사. [사진 계명대 대구동산병원]
김 간호사의 당부다.
"간호사들 모두 힘들지만 자부심을 갖고 있어요. 여기 와보니 코로나가 곧 종식되겠다 느껴질 정도입니다. 메르스 때도 국민 응원이 큰 힘이 됐는데, 이번에는 더 큰 응원을 느낍니다. 다만 보이지 않는 곳에서 고생하는 의료진의 처우 문제나 지원 부족이 좀 더 알려지고 바뀌었으면 좋겠습니다."

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