Originally published in The Paper(澎湃新闻) on Jan. 28th, 2020
Reporter | Ming, Que (明鹊)
Weng Qiuqiu didn’t know what was killing her, even when she died.
The sickness came down fast. From headaches, to coughs, to difficulty breathing, to eventually “all of her lungs were white”, death arrived in just 12 days. It was January 21^st^, 2020, the new coronavirus epidemic was spreading from Wuhan to the whole country. Weng Qiuqiu’s hometown, Qichun County, which is located in Huanggang City in Hubei, is only a few hundred miles from Wuhan. Huanggang is the most affected area outside Wuhan.
The doctor told Weng Qiuqiu’s husband, Chen Yong, that she was suffering from an unidentified pneumonia. After spending all of the 200,000 Yuan (~28,000 USD) or so he borrowed on medical bills, Weng Qiuqiu’s condition still did not improve. In the end, Chen Yong signed the consent form to give up treatment.
When she died, Weng Qiuqiu was only 31 years old. She had just found out that she was pregnant. The cause of her death on the death certificate read “Severe pneumonia, respiratory failure, septic shock”.
It’s hard to say whether her death had anything to do with the new coronavirus. As of 12AM on January 28^th^, the Chinese NHC had received cumulative reports of 4515 confirmed cases and 6973 suspected cases from 30 provinces.
Meanwhile, the report issued by the Research Group of the People’s Hospital of Wuhan University on January 24th suggested that the pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus might exhibit various symptoms, and it is easy to have missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis.
One of the difficulties in diagnosing the virus was a shortage of test kits. In addition, before January 22^nd^, samples of all suspected cases in Wuhan were required to be sent to the Hubei CDC for standard testing. After the 22^nd^, in order to speed up the process, testing is allowed at designated hospitals. Gao Fu, the director of China’s CDC, stated in an interview with CCTV that they will ensure enough testing kits to be delivered to each administrative level.
Chen Yong didn’t know how to answer their oldest daughter’s question: “Where is mom?” He regretted that he had not persisted then. Sometimes he thinks that if he had decided to continue the treatment, his wife might have been able to survive.
Below is Chen Yong’s narrative of the event.
On January 7^th^, my wife went to the market and bought fish head, chicken, and some vegetables. She made us hot pot when she got back. We had dinner together. Her appetite was pretty good, and she ate a lot.
The next day my daughter’s kindergarten was taking a break. My wife said she was not feeling well and asked me to go to the kindergarten and pick up our daughter. On January 9^th^, she stayed at home with our five-year-old daughter. At noon she sent me a message, telling me she had a cold and asking me to buy some medicine after work. She also wanted a box of pregnancy test kits. She suspected that she might be pregnant.
I got off from work around five that day. After I got home, I gave her the medicine and the pregnancy test kit. Around six or seven, she told me she was pregnant. I was quite happy. I made dinner that night: stir-fried pork liver, some pickles, and some stir-fried vegetables. She had a big bowl of rice but was a little lethargic. I was still cleaning dishes in the kitchen when she went back to her room and went to bed. Soon our daughter was asleep too.
I thought she was just having a cold at the time, and that after some rest, she would be okay soon. Then I fell asleep too.
January 10^th^, around three in the morning, she suddenly woke me up and said she wasn’t feeling well. She was having a headache and a sore throat. She was having a fever; her temperature was above 38 degrees Celsius (about 100 F). That night, we rode to the hospital on an electric bike. We brought our daughter with us, because there wasn’t anyone at home to take care of her, and I didn’t feel safe leaving her alone in the house.
We went to Huanggang Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Hospital, and the doctor told us we had to wait until the morning to start the infusion. We got some more cold medicine. It suddenly began to rain on our way home. We got home around four in the morning. My wife was coughing a lot, and she couldn’t fall asleep. I couldn’t either. Only our daughter was able to sleep for a bit.
It was rainy the whole day. Around seven in the morning we got up and went to the hospital again. My wife took an X-ray, and the doctor said she had an inflamed throat. Because my wife was pregnant, she couldn’t really take any medicine or injections. We had to transfer to Huanggang OB/GYN Center.
By then it was already noon and we planned to go home first, then head to the OB/GYN Center in the afternoon. When we got home, I asked my wife what she wanted to eat. She said she wanted some porridge. I made her some rice porridge, but she only had a few spoonfuls.
In the afternoon, we came to the Center, and the doctor said pregnant women couldn’t really take any medicine or injections. We went back to Huanggang TCM Hospital and spoke to a pulmonologist. At the time, my wife was already having difficulty breathing. She felt extremely fatigued and couldn’t even walk. She was feeling much colder than usual.
After doing an ECG at the Huanggang TCM Hospital, the doctor asked us to transfer to Huanggang Central Hospital. When that didn’t work, we went to Tongji Huangzhou Hospital.
It was already four or five in the afternoon. We had our daughter with us the whole time, and we just couldn’t go on like that. I called my child’s uncle, and they came over and took her to her grandpa’s house. I sat on the hospital bench and said to my wife, let’s just stay here, is that ok? At the time she couldn’t speak at all, and she just nodded and nodded. I was so sad…
It was a long day. Around 11 that night, my wife was finally transferred to a top-tier hospital in Wuhan.
I knew a few days ago that there has been a contagious pneumonia (the novel coronavirus) spreading around in Wuhan, but there haven’t been any cases in Huanggang. It didn’t occur to me at the time [that it might be the coronavirus], and the doctor did not say anything about it. I was only thinking about where I could get enough money to save my wife’s life, how to send her to a good hospital.
When I got to the hospital in Wuhan, the doctor told me that my wife had an infection, that all of her lungs were white.
Six months ago, we came to Huanggang from Qinchun County. We invested 30,000 Yuan (~4,000 USD) and partnered up with some people to open a furniture store selling doors and windows. We were hoping to improve our lives. Nobody expected all this to happen.
My wife was 32 years old, and she was a saleswoman in our store. January is the off-season, so she didn’t need to go around that much. Our store has been in the red because it just opened. We only have a base salary of 3000 Yuan (~400 USD) a month. Taking out 500 (~70 USD) for the rent and my daughter’s kindergarten tuition, we have been losing money the whole time for the past six months.
Our plan was to go home for the New Year after the Holiday started on January 12^th^.
On January 10^th^, my wife was taken to a hospital in Wuhan that night. At first she was admitted to the fever clinic. Around one or two in the morning on the 11^th^, she was taken to the emergency room. Soon she was admitted to the ICU.
There were many patients that night, and some of the patients’ families were not wearing masks. Many doctors and staff were wearing masks. I asked for some masks from the nurse.
My wife was quarantined after she was sent to the fever clinic. The doctor said she had the unidentified pneumonia.
Weng Qiuqiu’s CT scan result. This photo was provided by the interviewee.
The next day, the doctor told me that my wife was very ill, and they needed to change the treatment, which involved a very expensive machine, and it would cost us 20,000 Yuan (~3,000 USD) a day. But she only had a 10% chance of survival. I was on the verge of breaking down.
I didn’t get any rest for those few days. On January 12^th^, around seven in the morning, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t stand it. I fell asleep on the hospital bench for about an hour.
During that time, my mother and I lived in a hostel nearby. We didn’t turn on the AC the first day because we wanted to save money. It cost us 60 Yuan (~8 USD) a night. The next day, it got too cold so we had to use the AC. That was 80 Yuan (~11 USD) a night. The hostel hosted a lot of family members of pneumonia patients who were receiving treatment from the hospital.
During the day, we ate in the hospital cafeteria. 8 Yuan (~1 USD) for a bowl of noodles. 14 Yuan (~2 USD) for a meal.
I was always in the hostel because I couldn’t see my wife in the hospital. Every day I kept thinking about raising more money for the treatment. When we were still in the hospital in Huanggang, I already borrowed 10,000 Yuan (1,400 USD) from my brother. I then borrowed more from all my relatives and friends. I was so afraid at the time, and all I could think about was to keep the treatment going, and to save my wife’s life.
I also called the Mayor’s Hotline, the Governor’s Hotline, and a lot of other media. I also raised money from the public, and I got around 40,000 Yuan (5,700 USD). But it wasn’t enough. The first three days that my wife was in the hospital, we had to pay around fifty or sixty thousand a day. After that, it cost more than 20,000 Yuan (~2,800 USD) a day.
On the other hand, I just wanted to see my wife and talk to her. Ask her if she was feeling any better, what she wanted to eat, what she wanted to do… But I just couldn’t visit her. Sometimes I would call the doctor, but every time they told me she was still in a coma, and the situation was just as bad, or even worse.
She was already pregnant and her immunity was down. The doctor told me that my wife’s hands were all purple, and then her feet turned purple as well, that they were all necrotic. Her condition was deteriorating very quickly.
I never got to see her again after she got into the ICU, until she became an urn of ashes.
On January 21^st^, at noon, I couldn’t borrow any more money, and my wife was not getting any better. I was desperate. After talking with my father-in-law, we signed a consent form to give up the treatment.
An hour later, at 1:46PM, my wife passed away. That night, her body was taken to the funeral home to be cremated. The death certificate said she died from septic shock, respiratory failure, and severe pneumonia.
I later learned that an old man in the hospital was just as ill as my wife, and he was slowly recovering after receiving the treatment, although he was still in quarantine. I’m very conflicted right now. Although my parents-in-law did not blame me, I still feel very guilty.
Sometimes I think I might be able to save her if the treatment had continued. But there was nothing I could do. We already spent 180,000 or 190,000 Yuan (~26,000 USD), all of which we borrowed, and we sold our share in the furniture store. The New Rural Cooperative Insurance covered over 60,000 Yuan (~8,500 USD).
I used to work in construction sites. Sometimes I made 2,000 or 3,000 Yuan (~350 USD) a month, other times 6,000 or 7,000 (~900 USD). By the end of the year, I could make around 10,000 to 20,000 Yuan (~2000 USD). My wife had been making curtains and clothes at home. We have been married for seven years, and we didn’t really have any savings. We also didn’t have a house or a car to sell. There’s only one old house owned by my parents.
The day after my wife passed away, we got through the necessary procedures in the hospital, and went to Wuchang funeral home to get her ashes. There were a dozen people out there waiting to pick up the urn just like us. After we got her ashes, we took a bus back to our hometown. We haven’t been back to Huanggang even now.
Soon after we got home, Wuhan and Huanggang were both “locked down”. Several surrounding cities have been “locked down” after that.
I’m constantly worried now; on the one hand I’m worried that I might have the pneumonia as well, and on the other hand, I fear for my family because they might be infected as well. Besides, I’m in so much debt.
When my brother took my daughter home, he also took her to the hospital for a check-up. They found nothing wrong. The doctor told my brother that all will be well so long as the person is feeling okay. I didn’t go and check myself, but I am feeling OK.
These few days I would lie in my bed at night, and just couldn’t fall asleep. There’s so much on my mind, and my heart hurts so much that I cannot speak….
Although it is the New Year, it feels very lonely at home. The people in the village are very nervous. Most people just stay at home now. My daughter doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s too young to understand. Sometimes she asks me, where is mommy, and I don’t know how to answer her.
Weng Qiuqiu and Chen Yong are aliases