In the early 20th century, when Vietnam was under the colonization of France, Saigon of South Vietnam was named “La Perle de l’Extrême-Orient”, or “The Pearl of Far East Asia.” That is always true. Saigon has always been akin to a “classy mademoiselle.” She is busy and bustling with businesses in the morning. And when the sun goes down, she puts on her gorgeous looks and immerses herself in the parties all night long. LED lights, night markets, street food, pubs on top of skyscrapers, open mic cafes, horn honking 24/7, and more. She never sleeps, and that’s for sure.
Born and raised in Saigon, that nocturnal lifestyle was in my blood. I was attached to this place that way.
July 2021, Saigon was dead. This golden city of 10 million people was completely silent. Not a single motorbike on the road. The police and army troops were guarding 24/7 on every street to make sure no one left their house.
During all those months, I was not at home. In fact, I lived somewhere else. Hung Vuong Central Hospital, Zone K1 – frontline area for treating Covid F0 maternity women. I wore the most fashionable outfit of all time: 3 layers of nylon protective suits, 3 layers of N-95 masks, a face shield, and gloves. Although it usually takes 9 years before we’re allowed to treat patients in Vietnam, at the time, doctors were in such high need that an 8th-year medical student like me was directly in charge of treating patients along with other underclassmen. And there were barely enough people on duty in each zone; consequently, none of us was allowed to rest.
“You’re doing great. Breath in! Deep breath! That’s right. Keep going, Mom!” I tried to calm her down as I turned over and yelled toward the hallway: “Bring me a phone, please!”
My left hand was constantly putting the nastrogastrictube in and out so the patient could talk; my right hand hastily opened the Phone app. The others were ineptly pumping air and replacing inhalers.
“Mom, you’re doing great. I’ll get your family on the phone with you. Stay calm and read me their number, okay?” I said.
“0.. 0.. 72.. 3..” She whispered each number out in between those tough breaths.
“Good. Breath in. Keep going, Mom!”
“0.. 53.. 014.. 5.. I’m so scared.”
“No, you’re doing great. You’ll be okay. Keep breathing, okay?”
The phone was ringing for more than 10 seconds before someone picked it up on the other end. “Hello, are you the husband of patient Vu Phuong Anh?” I spoke.
“Yes, I am,” a man’s voice answered.
“I’m Dr. Kim. Your wife is hardly breathing so we will try to place tracheal intubation. But I’ll let you talk with her first, okay? You’re now on speaker.”
“Honey, I’m.. I’m.. so scared..!”
“Are you okay? How are you?” he asked her. I’m on fire, God damn it, she is dying, we’re struggling to keep her breathing, say whatever you need to say, you idiot! “Sir, please say the last words you need to say to her.” I tried to stay patient and spoke to the phone, then I handed it over one more time.
“…Honey, are you okay? What should.. What should I say? Umm…”
You lost your chance dude. I ended the call and moved on. Thinking back, he was probably too panicked and did not know what to say at the time. We put her on a ventilator and she fell asleep shortly after. She was probably tired from the past 5 minutes.
I sighed out and walked backward a few steps until my back hit the wall. It was 3 AM. My exhausted body slowly slid down along the wall until I sat on the ground. It was not until then that I felt all of my muscles were aching. I cowered, arms wrapping my legs, and dopily sat there zoning out for a bit. Random thoughts were rambling in my head as I somnolently closed my eyes right on the ground with my head on my knees although I tried to keep myself awake. I’m not supposed to sleep. Seconds before my eyes completely closed, I caught a glance out of the opposite windows. Saigon is dark, the color of hopelessness. As dark as the lives of everyone right now. There is no light, but the Moon. It has never been this poetic. Or at least, I have never realized so. The dark of Saigon makes it even brighter. Saigon has slept for quite a few months now. When will she wake up though…? Will she be alive? Will both of them be fine?
An hour later, Beep… Beep… Beep. “CODE BLUEEEEEEE. Dr. Kim! CODE BLUEEE!!!” I woke up in that room filled with the smell of disinfectant and people shouting my name. Without any second hesitating, I immediately rushed to the resuscitator bag, pressed continuously as hard as I could, as I glanced at all the numbers to check what was going on. “She passed out. Why is there no oxygen? What happened?” I vomited my thoughts out. It was raining.
I grabbed a nurse, handed her the bag to pump, and jumped on the bed to start CPR. “Call more people! SpO2 is dropping. Replace and reconnect the tube before pumping. Dr. Minh, change a new oxygen inhaler for me!” I yelled.
“There are no more available inhalers, Dr. Kim!” someone yelled in from the hallway.
My eyes stretched. What the fxck? Who the fxck in charge did not stock them up? “Keep chest compressing for me!” I ran to the phone station in the hallway. Hit 100, no answer. Hit 009, no answer. Hit 201, still no answer. Where are these goddamn people? Are they fxcking sleeping on duty or something? Pick up the goddamn phone!!! I attempted to dial all the numbers on that “Emergency Number List” on the wall in front of me. Hit 510, still no answer. Hit 245, someone picked it up. My goodness! “Code Blue, 1st floor, Zone K1, please. Inhalers needed. Prepare for a C-section. RIGHT NOW!” I hastily yelled to the phone and hung up.
I rushed to the changing room, quickly changed into a new disinfected suit as the hospital speaker announced: “Code Blue in Obstetrics. Zone K1. Available resident physicians, anesthetists, pediatricians, obstetricians, cardiologists, and podiatrists, please report to K1 immediately!” Available? I don’t even know if any of them are available. It is still pouring rain.
Then I heard footsteps in the hallway. Thank God, they’re here. I ran over after changing. All types of beeping alarms were going off. “Whoever’s gonna perform the C-section, leave to wash your hands! The rest stay here to move her into the PT room (surgery room). We need to take the baby out ASAP to reduce pressure on the Mom!” I tried to talk over the beeping sounds.
Ten people were talking over each other, multitasking, and doing all we could basically. The patient was no longer conscious. Four of us were taking turns doing chest compression. One was pumping the resuscitator bag. Two were giving injections. Three were struggling to push the bed toward the PT area.
Fxck it! Her SpO2 keeps dropping no matter what we do. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. The BEEP goes off faster as her heart rate drops. At least, I felt so. 84… 71… Fxck! She is dying. Oxygen saturation also drops. 95% to 75%… And we’re only halfway there.
“CPR CHANGE!! MOVE FASTER!!”
“BEEPPPP. BEEPPP. BEEPPP.”
“PUMP HARDER!!! FASTER!!!”
“5 MORE MILLILITERS! RIGHT NOW!”
Her SpO2 went up a bit. For a tiny second, that gave me hope. Mom, you got this! We’re just a few more meters from the PT area. But then it dropped again. Even more rapidly than before. Heart rate and oxygen saturation went deep down. 65 and 30%… Please. Please. 57 and 20%… FXCKKKKK! 37 and 8%… 20 and 5%… 0 and 1%……. “BEEEEEEEEPPPPPPP.” A long last beep before all the chaos stopped and it went completely silent.
One second passed.
Several seconds passed.
I slowly climbed off the bed, looked down at the ground as my eyes closed tightly regretfully. We all dopily fell into the silence. I speechlessly looked at my patient, my right hand on her fetus. “July 27th, 2021. 4:17 AM, Patient Vu Phuong Anh has passed away in her 30th week of pregnancy.” Someone called time, and I couldn’t care who. Our tears couldn’t help but drop to the ground. I looked out the window and glanced at the sky. A hate glance. They did not deserve this. It’s still sprinkling rain. I see something different. Not pain nor regret. But relief.
The next few hours before sunrise, I managed the procedures to hand her over to the care of her family. Her husband could not hide his sorrow. Her parents sobbed painfully. They did not even know she was sick at all. Later that morning, when I had a few hours off duty to get some sleep, I could not. I kept thinking about her. I admire her. Vu Phuong Anh. A Mom, who gasped for life, and for her child until her last conscious second. A daughter, who did not want her parents to worry about her. A remarkable human being.
For 25 years, the endless bustling life cycle of this city fooled me into believing that was all it was about. I had always lived on the surface of Saigon, yet never dived deep down to explore its core. As a native of Saigon, I had never truly understood this place. What a shame!
“Saigon never sleeps.” It was not until then that I understood what that actually meant. When there are no more LED lights, cheers, parties, horn honking, or night markets, but Code Blue, disinfectant smell, PT rooms, ventilator sound, and oxygen pumping instead, Saigon is still awake to every single heartbeat. Its powerful and phenomenal vitality resides nowhere but in the heart of Saigonese.