The emergency department doctor credited with preventing a widespread coronavirus outbreak in South Australia says she was struck with disbelief when informed one of her patients had returned a positive COVID-19 test.
Lyell McEwin Hospital doctor Dharminy Thurairatnam was treating the 81-year-old woman on the night of Friday, November 13, when she noticed she had a slight cough and got her swabbed.
The woman had come in “feeling not her normal self” and “weak”, but with few other COVID-19 symptoms.
“It was during the consultation, I heard and noticed her having a slight cough so I ordered a complete respiratory swab,” Dr Thurairatnam, who is currently in quarantine, told ABC Radio Adelaide on Monday morning.
“Even though she had very mild symptoms, it was better to be safe than sorry.”
Dr Thurairatnam thought nothing more of it and went home, slept after her night shift, and then celebrated her son’s birthday.
When she returned to the hospital for her next night shift on Saturday, a colleague told her the patient had tested positive for coronavirus, and that she needed to go into isolation.
“I burst out laughing, [I said] stop pulling my leg, there is no COVID in the community of South Australia – come on!” Dr Thurairatnam said.
“[The diagnosis] was actually a result of very good team work between the ED nurses, doctors and support workers at Lyell [McEwin] ED.
“I was just doing my best for the patient … I will never forget that day.”
The 81-year-old patient is part of what is now known as the Parafield cluster, and contracted the illness from one of her children who works at the Peppers Waymouth medi-hotel.
That cluster includes a 36-year-old Spanish national, who initially told authorities he was a customer rather than a worker at the Woodville Pizza Bar, which sparked fears the virus was being spread by pizza delivery.
Dr Thurairatnam migrated to Adelaide last year from Singapore, where her husband and children are still living.
Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier has described her as a “heroine” and an “astute young doctor” who was observant and followed protocols to identify the patient’s very mild symptoms.
South Australia went into a hard lockdown on Thursday, which was relaxed on Sunday after it was revealed the pizza bar worker had lied about his employment.
“I didn’t expect all of this to happen, I honestly don’t know what to say,” Dr Thurairatnam said.
“I’m certainly feeling very, very hopeful and very positive about the COVID-19 situation in South Australia.
“The people of South Australia have come in hand-in-hand with the Government of South Australia by doing the right thing, sticking on top and staying ahead of the game.
“Frontliners have been working relentlessly around the clock to curb the spread of COVID-19 second wave in South Australia.
“I’m really hopeful we might be able to have, in inverted commas, a close-to-normal Christmas celebration and happy new year — fingers crossed.”
Premier Steven Marshall said he spoke to Dr Thurairatnam this morning, thanking her for her service.
He echoed Dr Spurrier in describing her as a “hero”.
“If this doctor hadn’t been on her game, this could have progressed very significantly,” Mr Marshall said.
“On behalf of the people of South Australia, I’ve expressed my very grateful thanks to Dr Dharminy at the Lyell McEwin Hospital.”
Dr Thurairatnam is still in isolation at a medi-hotel in Adelaide’s CBD.
She joked she was planning to catch up on chores once she is given the all clear.
“I need to clean my home – the home has been abandoned for two weeks – I think it needs a good clean,” she said.