‘There were moments I just wanted to die’
On Friday July 17, Tina Dinh begged her mother Dung Huynh, 60, not to go to work.
Coronavirus cases had been confirmed among her colleagues at Bertocchi Smallgoods but, as a casual worker, Dung felt she had no choice.
By noon Dung and her workmates were told to go home, undergo COVID-19 tests and isolate.
"Over the weekend it was scary because she had call after call after call from people crying and saying they had tested positive," Tina said.
"Over the weekend there were 17 who had tested positive.
"From that Sunday onwards my parents got sick - really, really sick."
After initially testing negative, Dung and husband Hoang, 72, underwent a another test which came back on July 25 confirming both had COVID-19.
Although symptom-free, 26-year-old Tina underwent a test that afternoon, but soon realised she didn't need to wait for the result.
"From Sunday, I just woke up and I knew I had COVID. You just feel it in your bones.
"This isn't normal sickness. You suddenly lose your sense of smell, you lose your sense of taste and you get this constant 24/7 headache.
"I remember getting these chills I couldn't shake off."
Although her parents were already bedridden, Tina quickly became the sickest person in the household.
Despite her young age and lack of underlying health issues, aside from mild asthma, she suffered a constant temperature, headache, nausea and chills - finally needing an ambulance at 8pm on July 29.
At Footscray hospital Tina rallied over the next 24 hours and was discharged with a machine to monitor her oxygen levels at home, and was getting regular phone checks from Western Health's "hospital in the home" medics.
But once at home, she was alarmed to find her father had been sent to Sunshine Hospital. After shivering through the night he had become partially unresponsive.
By Saturday morning Tina's own oxygen levels had plummeted to a dangerous 84 per cent and doctors urged her to return to hospital.
Paramedics arrived just in time.
"They took me straight away because I couldn't breathe. It happens very, very quickly and you stop breathing. You just can't take in any air.
"I can't even describe it. It is the most terrifying feeling because you don't understand why.
You are trying to do everything you can with your mouth and your nose, you are trying to gasp in the air, but nothing is going in. It is like suffocating."
A team of about 10 specialists in Footscray Hospital's respiratory unit quickly realised they had no choice other than to place her on a ventilator in an induced coma.
Four days later Tina woke up alone, trapped in a plastic bubble with tubes coming out of her throat and everywhere else.
"When I opened my eyes I didn't know how long had passed and I didn't know where I was.
"I just remember lying there being scared, really scared. I was completely alone and I didn't understand what was happening to me. All I knew was that I could not breathe.
"I owe the doctors and nurses my life. I can't describe how much love I have for them.
"The only thing I looked forward to every day … every time they came in the first thing they would do is hold my hand and give my hand a squeeze.
"That was the only contact that you can get, and the only reminder that you are still here.
"It is a really surreal experience being trapped under that plastic 24/7. You reach out and you don't touch anything, you just touch plastic."
Over the course of several days Tina became more lucid, but hit rock bottom when she learned her father had been intubated on the same day as her. Worse, Hoang was still too sick to be taken off life support.
"There were these moments where I just wanted to die. It was unbearable. I couldn't deal with it any more.
"I was worried about dad, but I just didn't want to do it any more."
When well enough, Tina was able to check her phone for news of the world outside her bubble. What she saw was horrifying. A 33-year-old Melbourne man had just died from COVID-19, and Tina feared the possibility of soon being reported anonymously as "a woman in her 20s".
Her fears then turned to fury.
"I was really scared and to see the news of people protesting the lockdown, to hear about people not following the rules and calling it a hoax. I was angry.
She says she thought at the time: "I am stuck here. Nobody knows that people like me … we are in ICU right now and I can't breathe on my own. I want to rip everything off because I have so many things attached to me right now, I have needle lines everywhere and this is real.
"I don't understand what there is not to believe."
Determined to return home and support her mother, Tina was finally able to leave ICU and eventually returned home on Monday.
Having had pneumonia and still positive for COVID-19, it will take months for Tina to recover from the worst the coronavirus threw at her.
"You have no strength. There is no dignity because you can't do anything on your own.
"I still can't even sit up for longer than half an hour.
"I have no muscle strength. You can't walk, you can't even stand up so physiotherapists have to help you build your muscle again.
"I don't have a spot on my body where they didn't actually inject or do something to me.
"I have COVID taste in my mouth - it has a metallic taste and it just doesn't go away. I even woke up at 4am this morning just to brush my teeth because I couldn't deal with it."
But Tina's focus is now all on her father.
The ventilators that have preserved Hoang's life for a fortnight must now be removed before his body suffers further damage.
Still battling pneumonia and three infections, Hoang's heart and kidneys are strong which is a good sign, though nobody knows what will happen when he wakes.
"I'm hoping he gets better soon because we all miss him so much. We FaceTime him every day and it is so hard to see him like that, we just want to hold him," she said.
"He hears us. Last night he was really trying hard to move and he was crying, so the nurses were dabbing his eyes.
"It breaks your heart because the doctors and nurses are saying: 'He's trying to respond to you'."
Originally published as 'There were moments I just wanted to die'