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    ‘A 600-Person Dormitory’: Life Inside a Wuhan ‘Fangcang’ Hospital

    A Wuhan resident describes her experience inside the ‘parallel universe’ of a COVID-19 shelter hospital.

    Editor’s note: Yi Bei is a graphic designer based in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. She spent over two weeks in a temporary “fangcang” shelter hospital, after she and her parents contracted the coronavirus. Her parents were treated at separate facilities.

    On March 24, I went to donate plasma at a health center in my hometown of Wuhan. It was the first time I’d seen the outside world for nearly two months.

    Since my COVID-19 diagnosis in early February, I’d been cooped up in enclosed spaces: first in a hospital, then in a fangcang — a temporary shelter hospital for patients with mild symptoms — and finally in a rehabilitation center.

    But sitting in the back of a car driving to the clinic, with the windows rolled down and music blaring, those weeks of confinement started to seem like a strange dream. If it wasn’t for the fact that the driver was dressed head-to-toe in protective clothing, I could easily have forgotten that the epidemic had ever happened.

    Even now, my journey from infection to recovery feels surreal. It’s like I descended into a parallel world in which the coronavirus outbreak was located, only to reemerge back into the Wuhan I recognized.

    Entering the Fangcang

    In January, I went to a pop concert at Wuhan Sports Center, a 13,000-seat arena in the center of the city. At the time, I never imagined that just weeks later I’d be back, but this time as a patient — and that the stadium would be transformed into a giant shelter hospital.

    I was a late entrant to the fangcang. By the time I arrived, the center was fully up and running, and the beds were more or less full. The basketball court had been divided into six zones, each housing around 100 people. There were also 300 medical workers, mostly nurses.

    Life in the shelter hospital could be monotonous, punctuated only by mealtimes and an endless series of health checks. Nurses took my temperature in the morning, afternoon, and before bed. In between, they checked my blood oxygen and heart rate, as well as looking at older patients’ blood pressure. The doctors did the rounds twice a day, in the mornings and evenings. Occasionally, the nurses would lead everyone through a series of exercises.

    The rest of the time, we were basically left to our own devices. Outside the stadium, staff fenced off a large area in which people could move around. Some patients stayed in bed all day, while others would go out and enjoy the sun. Many of us would get together and chat for hours to pass the time.

    Canteens and Karaoke

    Living in the fangcang was a very strange experience: It often felt like we were in a huge dormitory for 600 people.

    First, there was the issue of eating. In the beginning, there were problems with food hoarding. People close to the entrance got to take their meals first, and some men would grab large portions. Sometimes, people near the back of the line were left with nothing at all.

    Later, the staff decided to deliver the meals directly to our beds. I’d occasionally wake up in the morning and find my breakfast already waiting for me.

    I didn’t sleep well in the shelter hospital. The lights were left on 24 hours a day. Fortunately, the hospital eventually gave all of us eye masks to help us rest. But because my bed was near the entrance, people were constantly walking back and forth from the bathroom in the middle of the night.

    Snoring was also an issue. On the first day, I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown, it was so loud. I hoped to get some earplugs, too — sadly, that never happened.

    There weren’t any showers in the fangcang, but they provided fresh water for us to wash our hair and feet. A lot of people would sit on stools outside and soak their feet. People did this at all hours, every day.

    To keep us entertained, the staff organized a hospital concert one day. Everyone was excited and took turns singing. The microphone was so loud, their voices traveled all over the fangcang. I had to go outside just to video chat with my parents. 

    Other times, the nurses’ station played some light music. Although there were many people in the hospital, no one talked loudly and it was often very quiet. When the music was playing, it felt ethereal, the sound lingering long after the song had finished.

    Unlikely Friendships

    After days spent living in such close proximity, the patients developed an unexpected camaraderie.

    When I first entered the fangcang, my parents were both hospitalized with more serious symptoms, and I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. At that time, no one was chatting much. None of us even knew whether our fellow patients’ situations were more miserable than our own, but there were few topics of conversation other than the pandemic. I chose to close myself off and stayed in bed.

    But later, my parents got better, and I loosened up a bit and started going outside for some fresh air. After a few days, some patients invited me to go out with them.

    One in the group was a woman in her 30s. For days, I’d been listening to her crying on the phone as she talked with local community workers. Her mother wasn’t capable of taking care of herself, but she also needed to be quarantined, so the family was facing a dilemma. 

    Another lady also cried every day. Her whole family was infected, and she didn’t know what to do about her two children.

    At the time, I didn’t know what to say to the pair. But when they took the initiative and opened up to me while we were outside, I realized that it was OK to talk about these things. 

    Later, our small group slowly grew from three to five or six people. Everyone began to chat together most of the day, stopping only to eat and sleep, like a group of schoolchildren. We spent a lot of time discussing CT scans, trying to pinpoint what was wrong in the image.

    After getting acquainted, we started talking about our lives outside the hospital, our careers and interests. I was probably the youngest in the group. Most were in their 30s or 40s, and one woman was in her 50s. Later, we started chatting about everything, and age didn’t matter. 

    We ended up setting up a group chat on social app WeChat, and we’re still in contact every day. After being discharged from the fangcang, we were sent to different rehabilitation and quarantine centers. Now, we’re all back home, but we still share updates on our health, follow-up rehab, assessments, and things like that. 

    The others have also talked about the discrimination they’ve encountered since recovering. Although I haven’t experienced anything like that myself, I comfort them when they mention it.

    A New Community

    Another thing that struck me about the shelter hospital was the amount of care everyone gave to the elderly. Wuhan’s fangcang were only supposed to accommodate mildly ill patients up to the age of 65. But several people over the age limit were there alongside us.

    In the bed next to mine was an elderly woman from the eastern Shandong province, who had been living in Wuhan for over 30 years. She spoke a dialect that few in the hospital could understand, and she was pretty unhappy. Her husband, son, grandson, and granddaughter were all hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, she had preexisting health conditions including hypertension, which often gave her insomnia and headaches during the night. 

    The nurses, however, took special care of the woman, giving her medication for hypertension and bringing her food and other daily necessities. The attending physician in our area also contacted the patient’s daughter privately and donated several thousand yuan to them after learning about the family’s financial situation. 

    The doctor wanted to make another donation, but the daughter politely refused, feeling that the medical workers had already given her mother great care. Most of the staff in the fangcang came from Jiangsu, another eastern province. One of the hospital volunteers and I have agreed to visit Jiangsu when the pandemic is over, so we can thank them in person.

    There was also a 77-year-old man with dementia, whose wife had been sent to an isolation ward elsewhere. Sometimes, he would wander around the hospital looking for her. 

    Everywhere the man went, someone would take care of him. They’d ask, “Where are you going, uncle?” in the Wuhan dialect, and give him water to wash his face. One nice young man noticed he hadn’t gone to the bathroom in several days. So, we coaxed the elderly man into drinking yogurt and eating bananas, saving our yogurts for him every day.

    Another nice patient asked the man about his situation at home, during one of his lucid periods. She asked around and found a way to contact his family. It turned out the man had two sons — the eldest was in a hospital, but the younger son’s family was fine. 

    The woman contacted the younger son’s family via WeChat. After calling once to say thanks for taking care of the elderly man, however, the family didn’t bother checking up on him after that.

    One day, the man suddenly became lucid and began to cry, saying that he wanted to see his wife. Again, the warmhearted woman made some calls, and with the help of some young people in the quarantine facility where his partner was staying, the couple were reunited via video chat.

    We all worried who would take care of the man after we left the hospital.

    The Code Turns Green

    After being discharged from the fangcang, I was quarantined in a rehabilitation ward for another two weeks before returning home. By this time, my mother was also out of the hospital and was self-isolating at home. We stayed in separate bedrooms, wearing masks whenever we emerged. We also ate meals alone.

    Now, the travel restrictions in Wuhan have been eased, and the health code on my phone has finally turned green. It remains difficult to enter neighborhoods — after all, asymptomatic people aren’t being fully screened, and people still need to be on guard — but people are much less afraid.

    The epidemic in China was actually nothing like I expected. At first, I thought it would disappear overnight, as SARS did in 2003. A friend and I fantasized that, at the end, we’d hug and cry in the streets. My friend’s family was infected as well, so we were supporting each other through this difficult time.

    A few days after my first plasma donation, I received a call from the blood center’s staff. They informed me that my plasma had a very high level of antibodies and could be used to help three severely ill patients. So, on the day that Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted, I went back to the clinic and made another donation, before the antibodies in my blood faded away.

    As told to Sixth Tone’s Ding Yining.

    Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: A medical worker leads coronavirus patients through a series of exercises at a “fangcang” shelter hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, February 2020. Yi Bei for Sixth Tone)