“You won’t be fine just because you don’t die”: Westmead Hospital intensive care doctor’s COVID-19 warning

Dr George Zhou at Westmead Hospital (left) and training intensive care staff in Lebanon.

Dr George Zhou has seen hundreds of people die overseas from COVID-19.

“Plenty of them were healthy, young people in their teens or 20s. It was terrible. There’s no two ways about it,” he said.

“Watching a pregnant 20-year-old die from COVID is horrible in a way that I don’t think can be put into words.”

Dr Zhou, an intensive care specialist at Westmead Hospital, was part of a World Health Organisation team sent to Lebanon last year to assist with the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Beirut explosion in August 2020 destroyed three hospitals and damaged two others, which were already close to capacity due to the pandemic.

In the months that followed, Lebanon’s known COVID-19 cases spiked to thousands every day.

The standout memory is being overwhelmed,” Dr Zhou said.

“All the normal hospital wards were converted to COVID wards with an emergency ICU in each hospital. There were patients in the corridors, patients in reception, patients in the carpark – we were giving oxygen to people in their cars.

“Many people had to be turned away from hospital.”

Dr Zhou estimates up to three-quarters of the hundreds of patients he saw died in intensive care.

Footage of patients suffering from COVID-19 inside St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. As of July 16 there are more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases in NSW and 75 people in hospital, including 18 in intensive care.

The experience made him more grateful for Australia’s public health system, but also reinforced to him the importance of public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re in a very different position in Australia with our equipment and medical resources. But I think people still underestimate how bad an actual pandemic is in a city,” Dr Zhou said.

“Our hospitals could easily be overwhelmed if cases hit thousands. But there’s a lot of complacency in Australia because we’ve done well for so long, people haven’t seen it.”

Dr Zhou said even those who survive intensive care can be left with lifelong issues.

Some of the people we discharged in Lebanon had such serious lung damage there’s no way they could ever return to work. They can’t go to the park and kick a ball around with their kids, things like that we take for granted.

“You won’t be fine just because you don’t die.”

His message for everyone is that prevention is the best approach to dealing with COVID-19.

“Get vaccinated as soon as you can and stay at home so we can get on top of this,” Dr Zhou said.

“COVID-19 is a deadly disease and I think we underestimate it. It can get bad very quickly.”

It remains vital that anyone who has any symptoms, or is a close or casual contact of a person with COVID-19, isolates and is tested immediately.

Check the NSW Government website regularly, and follow the relevant health advice if you have attended a venue of concern or travelled on a public transport route at the same time as a confirmed case of COVID-19. This list is being updated regularly as case investigations proceed.

There are more than 35 testing clinics in western Sydney and over 380 COVID-19 testing locations across NSW, many of which are open seven days a week. To find your nearest clinic visit here or contact your GP.

To book your COVID-19 vaccination, go to www.nsw.gov.au or visit the Australian Government’s Vaccine Eligibility Checker online.