The world is a dangerous place. When we think of science, we tend to think of the "world" as something under study; separate from us, and wholly distinct from our dreams and aspirations. The field of medicine conjures images of a humanist figure at the center of a biological puzzle, using her experience and education to understand a clear and distinct subject — a patient — who is contained, docile, passive and non-threatening. But when illness pulls a doctor out of that safety zone, everything changes. Suddenly the practice becomes personal in ways that go beyond the books. The life on the line is the one best qualified to save it, and — throughout the coronavirus epidemic — several doctors who died fighting disease were forced to experience what it means to put the eradication of a major epidemic above their very survival.
Peng Yinhua postponed marriage to fight the coronavirus
First and youngest is Peng Yinhua, a 29-year-old doctor who worked in respiratory and critical care at Jiangxia district's First People Hospital. Having delayed his wedding to join the fight against coronavirus, he was infected on the "front line," and was later admitted to the hospital, on Jan. 25.
His condition became more serious over the next few days, until Jan. 30 when he was transferred to the Jinyintan hospital in Wuhan for emergency treatment. This is where he died, at 9:50 PM on a Thursday, local time, according to a statement from his hospital.
Like many around the world, Chinese culture places family above everything, which means Peng fought the coronavirus with a passion matched only by his love for his family.
Doctor Liu Zhiming, and Doctor Xu Depu
Liu Zhiming — one of Wuhan's senior doctors — died after becoming infected with the coronavirus, according to a report in The Guardian. He was part of a humanitarian campaign that swept deep into the city, seeking those infected who perhaps had no way — or no one to help them — to reach a hospital.
Chinese state media described the house-to-house check in Wuhan — a city of 11 million people — as an attempt to "round up" all infected patients. Anyone suspected of infection was immediately tested, along with anyone who had close contact with a patient.
Liu was present during these events from the very beginning of the epidemic. During his efforts, he played a critical role in the collective attempt to control the coronavirus — also called COVID-19 — according to the Wuhan municipal health commission. But sadly, in the process, he "unfortunately became infected and passed away at 10:54 Tuesday morning at the age of 51 after all-out efforts to save him failed," the commission said.
That same day, another confirmation went public: the death of Xu Depu on the previous Thursday. Xu was the former director of the Ezhou city medicine hospital in Hubei province. A nurse confirmed his death from the novel coronavirus the following Tuesday, according to reports in Chinese state media.
Dr. Li Wenliang, the inspiring Wuhan whistleblower
More familiar to most is the somewhat controversial case of the whistleblower. A 34-year-old ophthalmologist working in Wuhan — the city where the coronavirus epidemic began — Dr. Li Wenliang died weeks after he was hospitalized with a coronavirus infection. NPR reported that China launched an investigation into "issues" surrounding the death of a doctor whose initial efforts to warn his colleagues and classmates of the dangers posed by an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.
When Li realized what was happening, he took to the popular Chinese media platform WeChat. He wrote that several cases similar to acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, had come to his attention. But within days the local Wuhan police visited and reprimanded him for speaking up. He was forced to sign a statement on Jan. 3, a copy of which was circulated online in China, where he admits to making "false statements."
Of his efforts to warn others, the statement said "[t]his is illegal behavior!" A few days later, Li was hospitalized, infected with the deadly coronavirus, and later died.
While he was not the only whistleblower in a medical profession who tried to warn the world of what was coming in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, it was news of Li's death on Weibo (China's equivalent to Twitter) — more than any other — that caused an outpouring of sympathy and near-unprecedented levels of anger at Chinese authorities, according to the South China Morning Post.
Of course, this brief review is nowhere near exhaustive. By definition, it can't be. But suffice the sentiment to say that when tragic epidemics like the deadly coronavirus happen, the ones who work the hardest to save us will often be the ones who take our place, as victims.