March 20, 2020

The unsung heroes who treated the first Covid-19 patient shares their story

In the evening of March 5, when the country was in deep slumber, a team of doctors and nurses including support staff at the national referral hospital were dealing with a possible Covid-19 positive patient.

Hours later, Bhutan confirmed its first positive Covid-19 case, an imported case in an American tourist.

As the news of the new coronavirus spread across the country, a growing number of Bhutanese found themselves face-to-face with the possibility of contracting the disease.

While some were thrust unexpectedly to the forefront of a possible national health crisis, others have trained their whole lives for a moment like this. These were the staff of the national referral hospital – doctors, nurses, cleaners, drivers, and other supporting staff.

The frontline fighters 

Three doctors – two specialists and a general doctor including seven nurses were actively monitoring the 76-year-old patient until he was air evacuated on March 13. In total, 34 health workers and support staff were engaged in tending the American patient. 26 of them are currently quarantined.

With panic and uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus, apprehension grew among the health staff in the initial days.

Senior clinical nurse and the in-charge of the intensive care unit (ICU), Tshering Dolkar, was one of the first staff who came in contact with the American patient at the isolation ward.

“All of us were scared in the beginning because it was a new disease,” she said. “However, as days passed, it all became normal for me and my team. We’ve been trained to do this all our lives.”

The 40-year-old nurse who has been providing clinical assistance for almost two decades shared that early preparedness for any possible positive cases at the hospital helped them manage the patient in a professional manner.

Another nurse, who requested anonymity, said that preparations at the hospital began as early as February. Covid-19 wards were identified and emergency drills were conducted regularly.

“By the time we had our first case, it all came naturally to us. While there were apprehensions among a few, we all did what we were trained for,” she said. “The patient and our team became like a family since we were in constant touch. Whenever possible, he would thank us and the country for taking good care of him.”

Besides the nurses and doctors physically attending the patient, there were support staff contributing to the treatment at the isolation ward.

Yeshi Dema, 27, was one of the three cleaners assigned at the isolation ward. “In the beginning, I was scared and also angry for being selected to do the job,” she said. “I could not afford to get sick since I’m the eldest in the family and the sole bread earner.”

She shared that she was constantly worried about her four-year-old son and her ailing mother at home. “As worried as I was for them, they were concerned about my safety too. During our regular video-chats at night, I used to tell them there was nothing to worry about.”

For Tshering Dolkar, besides her decade-long clinical experience, it was her daughter’s support that kept her going under intense pressure. “While my mother was a little worried about my safety, they all knew what I had signed up for.”

Tashi Phuntsho, one of the three drivers assigned for the duty said his family’s support kept him going. “At times she (wife) would call me after hearing all the fake news and get worried,” he said.

The 27-year-old said that like many, he was anxious too in the beginning. “However, I knew that I was safe because of the protective gear we were given and from the advise seniors gave us.”

Although frightening, he said that the experience was enriching. “These few days of working in high-risk situation have taught me so much. I can confidently say that I’m now prepared for any worst case scenarios, should there be any.”


Tshering Dolkar said that the biggest fear in the isolation ward was not of contracting the disease but keeping the patient healthy. “Given the patient’s condition, we were all worried. We were worried about the impression the world would have about our country if we had let our patient, a guest of our country, die.”

She said that having a cooperative team was the biggest asset during the recent emergency. “Doctors did not restrict themselves to treating the patient only. They were equally involved in keeping the area clean and provided all the support they could. We had a really good team who were ready to give everything.”

Following the enriching experience all of them had after dealing with the patient, Tshering Dolkar said that they are now more equipped and aware on how to attend to similar cases in the future.

“We wish to see our patient back in our country in good health soon. His daughter had written to our team upon his arrival in the USA,” she said. “We provided the best of the services we could in times of such national emergency. We pledge to offer the best of our service even hereafter.”