Zika outbreak: A reporter's experience as a suspected patient

SINGAPORE - On arrival at the facility, I was escorted through an unmarked door into a windowless concrete bunker with spindly metal showerheads suspended vertically from the ceiling at regular intervals.

Fluorescent tubes bathed the place in a cold white light. Yellow bins marked "biohazard" were everywhere. Several men and women in light blue garb scurried about purposefully and quietly, poring over papers and labelled tubes and consulting urgently among themselves.

About 30 people were here under their supervision, many with masks on. A few were lying in "first class" beds and lounging in "business class" leather-backed wheelchairs, while most sat in "economy class" hard plastic chairs. They looked at me, the new arrival, with an expressionless gaze. One of them had swollen, bloodshot eyes.

A television screen stood on a small wooden cabinet in the middle of the room, showing pictures of chemical warfare being waged on the Aedes aegypti mosquito and spewing out news on the number of known Zika cases in Singapore.

On the evening of Aug 27, I had been the journalist on duty when news broke of Singapore's first home-grown Zika infection. The editor had asked me to head down to Aljunied Crescent to investigate.

There was no cause for alarm then. It didn't occur to me to apply repellent. After all, even in a war zone, soldiers tend to let journalists do their job. Shouldn't mosquitoes, too, leave journalists alone to do their fair and unbiased reporting?

But four days later, when I got out of bed, my head spun and muscles felt like jelly. I have always enjoyed cold showers in Singapore's tropical heat, but that morning the water stung like ice. Well, I told myself nonchalantly, let's just get dressed for work and pop by the company's in-house GP.

 
 

I was careful not to make any insinuations to the doctor that it might be Zika. Sticking with the journalistic creed, I reported the facts - the symptoms, where I had been - and let him decide.

He got on the direct line to the Ministry of Health (MOH). There was some initial confusion as the MOH's latest update of the Zika guidelines laid out in detail what to do about pregnant women exhibiting symptoms, but the doctor could not find a single sentence about what to do with a man.

At last it was decided to activate emergency procedures. An ambulance was called.

To be honest, I felt excited to be on this adventure. It wasn't because I thought Zika was trivial or didn't realise it cost the country money to do this. And whatever was inside me could well be more dangerous to my personal health than Zika. But it wasn't killing me yet, and it was my first ride in an ambulance. The dopamine - a neurotransmitter secreted by the body that stimulates exploration and risk-taking - simply took over. Live every moment - you don't know when it's going to end.

The journey took us through Balestier Road, where, as a free man, I had recently enjoyed a street opera performance at the century-old Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple. Now the nostalgic shophouses zipped by like a flashback, subdued and faraway through the tinted windows.

Before long, the ambulance arrived at the hospital's Accident and Emergency department, and I was promptly whisked into the quarantine room.

They were doing things as fast as they could, but it was bone-numbingly slow. There were too many of us. After a two-hour wait, my turn came to sacrifice five tubes of blood and two plastic canisters of urine. That's hard-core scientific rigour, I thought. 

When dinnertime came we were served chicken porridge, which everyone ate gratefully. It soon dawned on me that it was going to be a long night. They told me it would take eight hours to do the tests.

It turned out that the only toilet was a portable one that didn't seem to flush. It was cleaned frequently, but kept getting messed up because of bad ergonomics. The sight made me even giddier.

The dopamine from the initial novelty had long worn off. My temperature soared to 38.5 deg C. The air-conditioner and the ceiling fans suspended below it blasted on my head, making my body think it was in the Arctic and provoking it to generate heat like a furnace.

I held my head in my hands.

I cringed every time the nurse called "Mr Lin Yangchen!" to check on my vital signs. Would anyone recognise my name and think this ST journalist was conducting some kind of undercover operation? I wasn't - I was genuinely ill.

At one point they wanted to put me on an intravenous drip, citing low blood pressure. No way, I protested passionately, the doctor already said I could simply drink more water to hydrate myself, and it's the air-con at the root of all my problems.

I began to recall the romantic Hong Kong movies in which the hospital-ridden male hero rips out all his intravenous saline and plasma needles to chase after the girl he loves.

The nurse finally gave up.

Meanwhile, another problem was rapidly brewing. With my immune system at full throttle fighting the virus, on top of my naturally high metabolic rate, on top of the freezing temperature, it wasn't long before I began to starve.

The sporadic servings of Milo and biscuits weren't even close to delivering the massive horsepower I needed. I started daydreaming of steak and sushi and bak chor mee and all the delicious food which I'd gorge myself on the instant I escaped.

But let's get this absolutely straight here: no one's at fault. I was being put up in a safe place and given a battery of medical tests free of charge. I could see nurses and doctors hard at work round the clock trying to stop a virus from spreading out of control. The nurses had to measure everyone's blood pressure and temperature at regular intervals and punch in the correct figures for the correct patient, straining their eyes on a small laptop screen. Not to mention collecting and sorting the endless stream of blood and urine samples from casualties still trickling in from around Singapore.

My stomach was groaning ever more plaintively as it slowly dissolved in its own gastric juices.

Finally I lost it. I had to take things into my own hands. I decided to order pizza.

Better to do first and ask questions later, I thought, but I thought it through carefully. I couldn't see a one-way trip by an innocent pizza compromising the biosafety of the facility, given that hospital staff were already bringing in food and drink.

So I secretly dialled the launch code 62-35-35-35 on my iPhone - just like the movies - and whispered Accident and Emergency department, and the first thing they asked me was what's the postal code. I could not let there be any obstacle between me and my Super Supreme. I didn't know, I said indignantly, surely you could find such an important place without the postal code? They relented.

The ensuing suspense was almost unbearable as the fate of the pizza remained unclear for 45 minutes.

When the deliveryman called me back to say he had arrived outside, I explained to the guard in my most pitiful voice that I was in a famine and could he help collect something from the pizza guy?

A look of surprise, followed by a smile at my outrageous plot. And I had my prize.

I took the Super Supreme to a quiet corner to chow down. But an extremely hungry guy sniffed me out. I passed him a slice and we started talking. He said he lived in Sims Drive and was being screened for Zika. We reminisced about the army days when food was plentiful despite its wildly fluctuating quality.

After dinner I found an empty bed frame at the back of the room, lay down and tried to sleep. But the overhead lighting was blinding me through my eyelids. Exasperated, I dug out my folding umbrella and opened it over my head. It worked, despite giggles from a few girls nearby.

A fitful slumber finally came, went, and came again.

 

Suddenly I awoke with a start. Someone was tapping on my shoulder. It was 5am. The doctor was calling for me, the nurse said.

More than 12 hours after I was quarantined, he told me my blood and urine had both tested negative for Zika. My heart sank. What, after all this, you tell me I'm not making the news?

But I soon came to my senses. Being healthy, strong and self-reliant beats lying in a hospital bed consuming taxpayers' money any day.

I was once again a free man responsible for his own actions and problems.

I trudged through the deserted and silent hospital corridors to the MRT station, where I encountered the first wave of early birds emerging to face another long work day. But I was going home, armed with two days' MC to let my immune system finish off my unidentified viral assailant.

Still wearing my office shirt, I blended surreptitiously into the crowd like Jason Bourne. They have no idea, I chuckled to myself.