On the morning of December 26, Wuhan-based respiratory expert, Zhang Jixian, 54, diagnosed four people including three from the same family with a new kind of flu.
They had one thing in common – on x-ray, their lungs appeared similarly distressed with pneumonia.
Next day, three more patients came to her with the same symptoms.
Zhang Jixian was alerted.
What particularly worried her was that members of the same family were getting the disease. It meant one thing – the disease was infectious.
“In general, there will only be one patient when a family visits a doctor, and three people will not get the same disease at the same time unless it is an infectious disease,” she said.
Four among the first seven patients of this new kind of pneumonia had one more thing in common – the Huanan seafood and meat market which also traded in wildlife.
Unknown to her, Zhang had become the first doctor in the world to diagnose and then track the novel Coronavirus, which in the next five weeks would kill over 300 and affected more than 14,000 globally.
A month later, Zhang is now a hero in China.
On Sunday, the Wuhan-based Yangtze River Daily became one of the first media to interview her.
Since Zhang’s interview in Chinese went online on Sunday, it had been read 420 million times and 93000 threads of discussions on it were active on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platforms.
Zhang, described as mild mannered and gentle, is the director of the Respiratory and Critical Care department of the Hubei provincial hospital.
“This is a disease we have never seen before. There were also four patients from the south China seafood market. This was definitely a problem,” Zhang recounted to the local daily about her first encounter with the deadly virus.
She said in all seven patients, the symptoms in the lungs were consistent with only difference in severity.
Zhang realised that the situation was abnormal, and immediately reported to the hospital, and suggested that the hospital hold a multi-department consultation.
It has been verified that those seven cases of pneumonia were the very first cases of the novel Coronavirus.
In the next few days, Zhang’s hands were full.
“By New Year’s Day, these nine isolation beds (in the hospital) were not enough,” Zhang said.
Soon a team of experts from different hospitals in the city were coordinating their efforts to track the disease.
Since the discovery of the first cases, Zhang directed all respiratory medical staff to wear masks. The hospital approved N95 professional protective masks for their department.
“We only wear N95 when we enter that area. Other areas are still general medical masks,” she said.
As early as December 31, doctors dealing with the new pneumonia were using protective and isolation clothes when treating the patients.
Zhang said that the experience in protection against infectious diseases is rooted in SARS.
When fighting SARS in 2003, when she was 37 years old, she was a member of the expert group in a local district. Her daily task was to go to various hospitals to investigate suspects.