Voices From the Pandemic: “Thirty to forty people in our village died from a lack of oxygen, including my grandmother.”
“My grandmother’s blood oxygen level dropped to 80% and she couldn’t eat or drink. At the end, she was so weak that she couldn’t breathe from the oxygen tank. Losing a family member in front of my eyes really made me understand the danger of COVID-19.”
In early October 2021, Elizabeth’s whole family came down with COVID-19 in their village in Ayeyarwady Region, Myanmar. The country was in the midst of a devastating third wave that killed many thousands of people. The health system, already shattered by political unrest, was overwhelmed.
“It was very difficult at that time,” Elizabeth recalls. “Thirty to forty people in our village died from a lack of oxygen, including my grandmother.”
Elizabeth then became increasingly sick herself. “On the fourth day of fever, my blood oxygen level dropped and I started getting treatment with the help of the village health team,” she explains. “All of our family members were sick at the same time. My mother, my sister and I all had decreased oxygen levels.”
Elizabeth and her family members went to an outpatient clinic operated by Community Partners International partner the Karen Baptist Convention (KBC). There, they all tested positive for COVID-19. Concerned about their need for care and oxygen, the clinic arranged for them to be transferred to the KBC’s hospital in Yangon.
“I needed oxygen for two weeks at the hospital,” explains Elizabeth. “But I was most worried for my sister. Her blood oxygen level dropped below 80%. Five of us survived but we lost our grandmother.”
Elizabeth’s sister, Thaw, remembers this frightening time. “I was the most oxygen deprived,” she explains. “The nurses said my blood oxygen level was about seventy-eight or eighty percent. I don’t know exactly because I had difficulty breathing at that time. I had never felt shortness of breath before and it was very frightening.”
“I spent twenty-seven days in the hospital,” Thaw recalls. “When I got home, I still needed oxygen support for two or three hours in the afternoon, and sometimes all night, for about a week.”
Both Elizabeth and Thaw credit the KBC for their survival. “Without KBC’s help, we would not have been able to get enough oxygen,” confirms Thaw. “We lost our grandmother and it was really tragic for us. But we were fortunate to recover with help from the KBC.”
Naw Htoo Khu, the superintendent of the KBC’s hospital in Yangon vividly remembers this period. “It was a very difficult situation. At the hospital, people asked for 20 liters of oxygen, but we could only provide 15 because of shortages. I had to line up in the street to refill our oxygen cylinders when patients in the hospital were in critical need. We only lost one patient though."
The 50-bed KBC Hospital admitted as many people as they could who most urgently needed care. For others, they provided home based support through teleconsultation, home visits, and oxygen distribution.
"We received 200-300 phone calls every day for about six weeks,” reveals Naw Htoo Khu. “There were nights when I did not get any sleep because I was on the phone constantly. We also provided oxygen concentrators and cylinders with support from CPI, and I went in person to provide treatment and give instructions in patients' homes. We helped a lot of people but we couldn’t save everyone. That stays with me."
With the first cases of the Omicron variant confirmed in Myanmar in late December, Naw Htoo Khu and her colleagues at the KBC are making preparations.
“We have prepared the hospital to be ready to adapt to the changing situation,” she explains. “But we’re also working on prevention and control strategies. With CPI’s help, all of the staff at the KBC hospital have been vaccinated. We’re educating the local community about the new variant encouraging them to get vaccinated if they can. I believe that if prevention, protection and vaccination are done fairly, we can beat Omicron.”