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Surviving SARS -- and Living With the Wounds

For three patients, the disease proves mysterious and arbitrary. The ordeal has left them all more introspective.

May 12, 2003|Valerie Reitman and Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writers

HONG KONG — The disease that overwhelmed Simon Tse, a 41-year-old Hong Kong clergyman, shook his faith in God and filled him with anguish for infecting his wife.

It was the same SARS virus that a few weeks later made its way around the world and ambushed Christel Clark, a 46-year-old emergency room clerk at Toronto's Scarborough Grace Hospital. One moment she was fine, the next her resting heart rate raced to 134 beats per minute, her temperature rose to 103.7 degrees, and her mind filled with hallucinations of her long-dead mother.

While Tse and Clark were fighting for their lives, Dr. John Charles, a 60-year-old cardiologist working at the same hospital as Clark, shook off the virus quickly. His 100.3-degree fever abated in three days and he was home reading detective novels in six.

"I don't know why I got off so easily," Charles said, still puzzled over his brush with the deadly disease.

Three people, three stories -- none quite like the others.

The experiences of Tse, Clark and Charles are a window into one of the mysteries of SARS. The disease strikes some with enormous virulence; in many others, including most of the 63 cases in the U.S., it passes like a severe case of the flu, putting them out of commission for days rather than weeks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
SARS -- An article in Monday's Section A incorrectly reported that Toronto resident Christel Clark delayed going to a hospital because she doubted a diagnosis that she had SARS. She was actually advised to remain at home until the next day because the hospital had no isolation beds available.

It took just more than two weeks and a plane flight home from Hong Kong for an elderly Toronto couple to spread the disease from Asia to Canada. The chain of human contacts has led to more than 7,000 SARS cases around the world and more than 500 deaths.

Virulent or mild, severe acute respiratory syndrome puts its victims on a physical and emotional roller coaster. Tse, Clark and Charles suffered a profound sense of isolation. They feared they might die. They dreaded spreading the disease to others. And they will long remember the small gestures of friends and colleagues that got them through.

"It's changed my life," Tse said. "I know now I need more balance, more time with my family. Less pride, more humility."

*

As a church pastor, it was only natural that Simon Tse visit the territory's large Prince of Wales Hospital to tend to a patient dying of cancer. It was because of that early March visit that Tse became one of the earliest SARS patients.

There wasn't even a name for the disease then. It was simply called "atypical pneumonia."

For Tse, the first sign of trouble was a slight sore throat and muscle ache that came on as he made his way home after his second visit to the cancer patient.

He chalked it up as yet another bout with the flu, which he had already had twice in the last year. His fever persisting, he stayed home the next day and saw on television that several medical workers at the hospital he had visited had been struck by a flu-like illness.

He had a fleeting thought that he might have the same thing, but he dismissed the notion. His doctor didn't give it much thought either, despite a fever that had climbed to 102 degrees, and sent him home with flu medicine.

His fever escalated to 104 degrees, and the next day he dragged himself to an emergency room, where doctors examined and discharged him after an X-ray failed to show anything amiss.

That night, relentless diarrhea set in, and after two more days of high fever he returned to the same hospital emergency room.

This time, when he informed the attending doctor that he had visited the stricken Prince of Wales Hospital, the doctor made the connection and immediately put him in an isolation ward. The following day, Tse would join other SARS patients at Prince of Wales. He would be in a ward surrounded by about two dozen other victims, many of them the same medical workers he had seen on TV.

The hardest days were still to come.

He learned that his wife, Rosa, 38, had fallen victim to the virus too and lay in an adjacent ward at the same hospital. And a young nurse, after listening to his chest, suggested he might do better in intensive care.

"I began to cry," Tse said in an interview last week at his church in the thickly populated Mong Kok district.

His spirits hit rock bottom when the patient in the next bed died. The screams of grieving relatives filled the intensive care unit, haunting him.

"There were a few days when I felt I wasn't going to make it," he said. "I thought I might die too."

He was devastated that God didn't seem to be heeding his calls.

His wavering faith steadied as he recited lines from the 23rd Psalm over and over:

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me."

After 12 days, Tse's fever broke. His spirits soared when he was transferred out of intensive care.

His greatest relief was getting a glimpse of Rosa up and walking around in an adjacent ward -- proof that she too was out of danger.

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