SARS 10 YEARS LATER

Survivors try to get on with their lives

While some have bounced back, others suffer from depression

MATHS teacher Cathy Kong greets life with a sunny ebullience, one that matches her startlingly orange windbreaker.

Ask her how she reacted when she found out she was infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) 10 years ago on March 22, and she tells you with a giggle that her first question to the doctor was: "How long do I have to stay in hospital?"

In the end, it transpired, one month.

But the battle was not over.

Ms Kong had to also deal with prejudice at her workplace upon her return. Her principal told her to work in a disused classroom away from the staff room, while a "special cubicle" in the toilet was designated for her.

But her students did not leave her alone.

They decorated her new office space with drawings of flowers on the blackboard and photos of her cats.

They brought food to eat with her during lunch.

Ten years on, Ms Kong is a hardy survivor of the ordeal that left her coughing and vomiting. Except for once when she broke down during a counselling course she had enrolled herself in, she swiftly moved on.

The 53-year-old credits her Buddhist faith - life is predestined, she says - and her strong self-belief. For instance, she reacted to her principal's actions by simply telling herself: "She is naive and doesn't know better."

Like Ms Kong, Sars victim Patrick Heun, 72, a Christian, sought solace in religion.

The businessman was hospitalised for six weeks. Tubes were inserted in his body. He had to wear adult diapers. Breathing was a problem. He could not even press the buttons on his mobile phone.

"I dared not sleep because I didn't know if I would be able to wake up the next morning."

But he recovered - the only patient older than 60 to do so at the Prince of Wales Hospital.

"Since my miraculous recovery, I've appreciated everything in life more than ever. I take nothing for granted. More importantly, my faith in God has been greatly strengthened."

A decade after the crisis, the 1,755 Sars survivors in Hong Kong are coping to varying degrees.

While some such as Ms Kong and Mr Heun have put the crisis behind them, others are still trying to cope with scars from the ordeal, says Mr Alex Lam, chairman of the Sars Mutual Help Association for survivors.

It is estimated that 5 per cent suffer from bone degeneration, a side-effect of the use of steroids during the treatment.

More invisible are the psychological wounds, especially among those who lost family members. Many, says Mr Lam, suffer from depression.

Even those who thought themselves recovered find themselves crumbling again amid intense media coverage of the 10th anniversary of the crisis. A few cancelled arranged media interviews.

It is not just the people trying to move on. For many people in Hong Kong, the middle-income residential estate of Amoy Gardens Block E at Kowloon Bay became a catchword for Sars when it became an epicentre of the crisis.

One of the earliest victims had visited his brother's home there, where his frequent toilet visits were believed to have spread the virus up and down the block via its sewerage system.

Some 200 residents contracted it, and eventually 42 people died.

As camera lenses zoomed in on the estate, more than half of the families fled and put their homes on the market. Prices plunged.

But a few savvy investors spotted an opportunity and moved in instead. By then, the building's sewerage system had been gutted out, with the government footing the bill.

Its exterior - such as the lift lobbies - has been spruced up too.

Retiree Peter Lau, 70, snapped up five units in 2004 at between HK$730,000 and HK$1.4 million, about half their previous prices, he calculates. Today, they are valued at at least HK$4 million (S$650,000).

Another resident, accounts clerk Joean Li, 48, who refused to move out, says: "My unit has a beautiful view, of the hill and the swimming pool. I wasn't going to let Sars make me sell it."

And then she whispers: "Don't write bad things about us. We have survived, and now it is all good."

xueying@sph.com.sg