Healthcare professionals across the world are working around the clock to save lives during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the clear dangers faced by those on the frontline, however, their bravery and sense of moral obligation have often eclipsed any understandable feelings of fear and anxiety. The virus has already claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people worldwide and, as it stands, more than three million people have tested positive for COVID-19. But these courageous medical professionals battle on. And some have even volunteered to join the fight.
One of these brave volunteers is Dr Jessica Mok. The 34-year-old, who is originally from Macau but now lives in London, last month answered the UK government’s calls for fresh volunteers on the frontline. She joined 750,000 other volunteers with medical expertise and has already been on the frontline for the past few weeks at London’s new Nightingale Hospital, a temporary facility that was built within days and opened its doors for up to 4,000 COVID-19 patients on April 7. The UK has already experienced more than 20,000 COVID-19 deaths and the country has more than 160,000 active cases – but that hasn’t deterred Dr Mok, who attended Macau’s Santa Rosa de Lima English Secondary College in her youth.
Dr Mok has already been facing the dangers on the frontline over the past few weeks. She has already experienced situations that would be upsetting to anyone from any walk of life, such as the heartbreak that’s felt when the family of those who lie dying in a hospital bed can’t be with them at the end.
“I have never had to tell someone that their family member is dying over the phone before,” says Dr Mok. “I’ve never had to hold that dying patient’s hand in lieu of a family member before.” But she also remains upbeat, adding: “The UK and the world are really coming together to tackle the [COVID-19] situation. It is a real privilege to be part of this fight.”
Dr Mok moved from her home in Macau to the UK to improve her English skills at the age of 14. Her mother, who owns Taipa Village’s Bare Nutrition, and her father, a retired pharmaceuticals trader, supported her through medical school in Nottingham where she trained to be a doctor. Gaining three months of experience working at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, she learned to deal with gunshot wounds and victims of violence daily. She also once worked as an expedition medic through the Peruvian Amazon jungle. But now, she’s one of many frontliners battling against COVID-19 and making a difference.
Having been in a research role in the UK, it all came to a halt with COVID-19. Desperate to help wherever she could and frustrated with nothing much to do, she took up the Nightingale offer immediately. “I have trained all my life to look after sick patients,” she says, “so when I saw how many people were getting sick with the virus, my instinct – like all doctors and nurses – was to go out and do what I could to help in the battle.”
Life on the frontline
Asked what it’s been like working at the Nightingale Hospital, Dr Mok, who is training to be a surgeon at London’s Royal College of Surgeons of England, says that as soon as she walked into the new centre, the enormity of the operation was evident. She also says she felt out of her comfort zone at the hospital because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to help critically ill patients with breathing problems because that’s not her specialty as a surgeon. However, she has met many incredible people in similar situations who have helped her and she admits it’s all been a humbling experience. “I met a dentist at the Nightingale who has been a dentist for 20 years but is now in a nursing role,” she says.
Dr Mok says she is apprehensive about being on the frontline but adds that she is not actually worried about getting sick herself. Instead, she worries about doing her job to the best of her abilities because if she falls sick, then the team is ‘a member down’. She also points out that nurses, due to their incredible compassion and caring, are the ‘real heroes in this pandemic’.
Patients in the Nightingale are not allowed visitors, which means that healthcare professionals like Dr Mok are tasked with passing on messages that are often emotional and hard to deliver. The nurses remain by their patients’ sides, helping them wipe their eyes, brush their teeth and moisturise their skin.
“If there is one good thing that comes out of this pandemic,” shares Dr Mok, “I hope it’s that nurses are appropriately recognised for their professionalism and skills in the future.”
Dr Mok does urge people to take COVID-19 seriously, because, as she puts it, ‘if people don’t, this virus will last even longer’. The coronavirus may affect older people and those with pre-existing conditions but she attests that they have also seen young people with no pre-existing conditions die at the Nightingale.
Message to her family
When her Macau-based parents first found out that she had volunteered for the Nightingale, they were ‘speechless’, according to Dr Mok. She claims that her father even called her and asked her not to do it. “It was a really difficult conversation with him,” she says, “as I had no idea how scared they would be about my welfare.” Now, though, she understands how her family felt because she now worries about her partner, who is also a doctor in the UK, falling sick. “What he tells me,” she says, “is what I want to tell my family and friends: I try my best to be safe.”
Knowing the support she is receiving from people in Macau and their pride in what she is doing in the UK makes a huge difference to Dr Mok, especially when she’s exhausted and finding it tough. She says that receiving messages from people in Macau that thank her and other medical professionals for their work at this time has really helped her a lot. To her, it also feels like it’s the first time in history where “people are openly valuing what healthcare professionals do”.
Dr Mok also shares how she uses Macau as an example when her colleagues in the UK ask how the East is dealing with COVID-19. She says she always points out how the SAR’s government has done an excellent job containing the virus. She highlights its transparency and clarity in communication, the measures and financial relief given to its people and how it has shown real leadership in a time of crisis.
“I’m so proud to be from Macau,” she says, adding that the SAR should use this opportunity “to review and improve the medical system and hospitals”. She says the city is in an “extremely good position to provide an excellent national health service like the one in the UK”.
Dr Mok can’t really say what will happen over the coming weeks. No-one can. While the UK’s situation is slowly stabilising with the help of social distancing and lockdown measures, relaxing these same measures too soon could be a disaster. All Dr Mok can say is she hopes that technology keeps rapidly developing so that the virus can be detected faster and, of course, she also hopes for a vaccine soon. “A vaccine will be the key to controlling this pandemic,” she says.
Dr Mok has not been back to Macau for more than a year but she admits she would really love the chance to return if and when she can take a break so she can visit her family and friends in the city. Once she can, she’ll have, as she says, “some pasteis de nata and an espresso while walking along old Coloane”. Seeing the pandas and taking trail walks with her friends are also activities that she looks forward to enjoying whenever she is able to return.
As for her career, Dr Mok says it has been “forever changed” by COVID-19. “I feel I am becoming a much better doctor due to this pandemic,” she says. Once the pandemic is over, however, she says she’ll complete her PhD qualification in obesity research and will return to her final three years of surgical training before becoming a full-fledged surgeon. After that, she doesn’t know. She’d like to return to Macau and work in its health system but she also dreams of doing humanitarian work at NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières or the Red Cross.
For now, Dr Mok hopes that when this pandemic is over, people across the world will “have learned from this experience”. She hopes this learning and empathy will then lead to a “better, stronger, fairer world”. “We all just hope,” she concludes, “that the world can get through this pandemic.”