BANGKOK — Speaking from his condo, Singaporean expat Jay Feng asked other people currently in self-isolation at their homes to stay calm and not to panic. He knew a thing or two about the coronavirus; in fact, he survived it.
Feng, who recovered several weeks after he first tested positive earlier this month, said he beat the virus by monitoring his symptoms early on, keeping a positive mindset even when he was in enormous physical pain, and relying on the sheer strength of his immune system. Plus a well-covered insurance plan.
“The most important thing is to not panic. The Thai healthcare system is actually very good,” Feng said in a telephone interview. “The authorities are fairly decent. Even if you don’t speak Thai, communicate your symptoms and medical history very clearly.”
Feng, 36, is the owner of Ohana Poke restaurant on Wireless Road, and leads what he describes as a very healthy, active lifestyle – he never smoked, exercised regularly, eats a very healthy diet, and gets lots of sleep.
But on March 8, he woke up with a strange body ache. He bought a thermometer at a nearby pharmacy and stayed at home the whole day, but it didn’t go away.
“Usually I get well quickly, even if I don’t get sick often,” he said. “But it was a body ache not like I bumped into something, but like my whole body crashed into something.”
The next day, he decided to get checked out at Bangkok Christian Hospital, even though he didn’t have a fever. After about 20 or so tests for other diseases, the doctors asked if he would also like to get a test for COVID-19, but be admitted for the night.
However, Feng did not meet the criteria for free coronavirus test, which include a fever over 37.5C, recent visit to a high-risk country, or close contact with a proven case. Still, he chose to get tested out of an abundance of caution.
“I chose to pay out of my pocket because I see people every day have it. I just admit myself and do the test, lah,” he said.
Feng was wheeled to the quarantine area and nurses stuck swabs about 20 centimeters down his nose and throat (“It’s a terrible feeling, very unpleasant. But you get used to it.”) as well as a blood sample.
Feng was feeling relatively well – until 1am that night. He woke up, inexplicably cold, with a dull pain in his left lung. He got some paracetamol from the nurses. At 3am, he woke up dazed, incoherent, with his hospital gown drenched in sweat, with the pain increasing. He measured a 37.7C fever.
He couldn’t sleep for the remainder of the night. Nurses came in at 5am to ask him questions relating to the virus that he had already answered, and at 7am, they informed him he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“This is when it hit me. I was completely, completely, shocked. I was lost for 30 seconds, don’t know how to react. I was completely dazed,” Feng recalled. “I started shaking because of the sickness and receiving this news and battling my emotions.”
Life in ‘VIP Treatment’
While nurses were quickly packing his things, Feng mentally ran through the people he had been in close contact with. He called and messaged his family, loved ones, and employees. “I tested positive, you need to get tested and isolate yourself,” he said.
He was whisked away on a wheelchair and saw all the nurses and medical staff in full protective gowns standing away from him, with someone taking photos of him.
“I started to become really worried. There was uncertainty about how I will pay for treatment. Everything became a blur as I was very sick,” he said.
Feng said he appreciated the “very brilliant” nurse wheeling him who tried to reassure him and calm him down. “This is despite being next to a confirmed COVID case. She made me as comfortable as possible.”
Feng was sent to the state-owned Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute on March 10, where “The VIP treatment continued. I was in a wheelchair, and all the lift and pathways were cleared for you,” he said. He would spend the next two weeks in a negative pressure isolation ward.
“At that time I didn’t even know what hospital I was in. I couldn’t take in the news,” he said.
His ward was separated from the corridor by a containment room where nurses would leave medicine and the mae baan would leave his food. He could only go in if there was no one else in it.
The ward itself had his hospital bed, a sofa bed, three windows with blinds, a table, and a chair. The bathroom was spacious and the shower had a heater. “It was new equipment, excellent, and clean. High tech, with lots of motion sensors. There were few physical buttons to press,” Feng said.
Doctors told him that he would get tested every two days for the virus. If he tested negative twice consecutively, then he would be discharged. The doctors could only treat his symptoms from now on – his immune system had to do the heavy lifting.
“That took the weight of uncertainty off. It gave me encouragement, a final goal that was in my thoughts every night. That really helped a lot,” Feng said.
Guilt Kicks In
Feng kept very detailed public records of his medical journey and posted them online to his shop’s Facebook page as a show of transparency and public responsibility.
His first post on March 10 on his admission day at Bamrasnaradura spoke about where he went in the days leading up to it. The post went viral, with over 9,000 likes and 6,000 shares. He received thousands of messages, including from concerned customers about if they will catch the disease if they ate at his shop.
The next few days were the worst, Feng recalled. His lungs were in pain, he was chronically tired, he was incoherent.
“I had a dry cough, not like the scratchy kind or the kind with phlegm. It was like coughing my lungs out. I couldn’t sleep because of the aches,” he said.
COVID-19 also came with a mental burden of guilt.
“I felt so guilty because I may have inadvertently passed it onto someone. That part was the worst. It was my main motivation for sharing the post. I want people to know as soon as possible and quarantine themselves,” he said.
Days four to seven, Feng was feeling slightly better but still very lethargic. Nurses took his vitals every four hours. He remembered high-tech equipment that would digitally capture his stats and send them online to the cloud, while doctors monitoring from afar would speak to him via speakerphone with excellent English.
Feng started devising a routine to help him get through the day: wake up, shower, change clothes, breakfast, take medicine, reply to messages on his Facebook for two hours, update his condition on social media, lunch, Netflix, read (“If I could focus”), a nap, dinner, read the news, reply to more messages, and sleep.
He watched on the news as the coronavirus numbers shot up worldwide – but it only gave him more motivation to beat the disease.
“Yes, it was depressing. But watching it, I knew I needed to survive this thing. Instead of having it put me down I wanna help people and give people hope, so they can say that someone they know survived this thing,” he said.
Missing the Human Touch
Although he made many video calls, reassuring his family that the healthcare standards in Thailand were “very, very decent” he still missed the human touch. “It’s different than having someone be there,” he said.
As the nurses came along each day in their protective PPE suits, he tried to chat to them with his limited Thai. It struck him how much the nurses have on their plate – not only do they have to treat him, they also did his laundry, took out his trash, cleaned his room, and disinfected his toilet.
“They did that because most of the mae baan are senior, so contracting the virus would be more dangerous for them. So they are doing this so mae baan don’t have to be in the room. It’s very heartwarming,” he said.
By day nine, Feng had replied to every single one of the thousands of messages he received, and he was beginning to severely miss the sun on his face and wind in his hair. Staff moved him to a regular ward because he was already self-sufficient and his X-rays came back without lung damage.
Most alarmingly, however, the hospital needed the room to admit a pregnant lady with coronavirus who needed the oxygen supply equipment.
“My heart sank from hearing that. The importance of social distancing and flattening the curve really struck me. I was clearly in a better position than that pregnant lady and older people. This could be their last fight,” he said.
Bad News and Good News
Meanwhile, he received word that two of his staff at the restaurant had also contracted the virus and were undergoing treatment as well. None of the family and friends of the three tested positive for the disease, however, so he posits that they contracted it from a customer.
Feng was very disappointed on days 9 and 10 when he continued to test positive, even though he had no more symptoms. “The isolation really kicked in. You didn’t see anyone or the outside world, the air, the sun. I was mentally looking forward to going back to my regular life,” he said. “I felt lousy about it.”
Fortunately, he tested negative on Day 11. “Just one more, and I can go home,” he told himself.
And he did on Day 12.
“I felt happy, but there were many mixed feelings coming together. I felt happy this episode was over, but cautious,” he said.
He went home on Day 13, with instructions to self-quarantine for a week. He’s been home since.
Fortunately due to his insurance coverage at Krungthai Axa, the entirety of his 147,000 baht medical costs were covered by the firm.
It would have been a considerable bill otherwise. His one day stay at Bangkok Christian Hospital alone amounted to 50,000 baht, and his 12-day stay at Bamrasnaradura cost about 97,000 baht. His close contacts also received free coronavirus tests due to their history of coming in close proximity with Feng.
Feng is looking forward to putting this episode behind him, and finding a way to keep his shop going after a month of no income.
“At the end of the day, your own immune system has to do everything,” he said. “So please practice social distancing. This episode is not about you, but who you may affect that cannot afford to catch this – the old, the weak, and the vulnerable.”
Correction: An earlier version story stated that the insurance agent covered his costs after a negotiation. Feng reached out to say that Krungthai Axa proactively worked to cover the entirety of his hospital bills.