Shaved Heads, Adult Diapers: Life as a Nurse in the Coronavirus Outbreak


Zhang Wendan and her family were celebrating the Lunar New Year when the 27-year-old nurse got a notice from the hospital: report back to work and join the battle to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Ms. Zhang lives in Huanggang, in Hubei Province, where the virus originated. Two days earlier officials had sealed off her city in a desperate attempt to stop it from spreading. Her mother quietly cried while Ms. Zhang and her fiancé went to her room to pack for her trip.

The experience at the hospital, Ms. Zhang says, has been harrowing, especially as a woman.

Like all of her colleagues, Ms. Zhang grew accustomed to wearing sweat-soaked clothes under her suit. She accepted that there weren’t enough masks to go around for staff. She took care not to tug on the seams of her protective suit, having learned the hard way that it will unravel. But she has also cut off all of her hair and had to have uncomfortable conversations with her superiors about menstruation.

For personal hygiene and convenience, Ms. Zhang had her hair cut short during her 30 days in the quarantine zone of the hospital. Chinese state media has called female medical workers who shave their heads “the most beautiful warriors” fighting the outbreak. At the grocery store, “someone called me ‘handsome!’” Ms. Zhang said. The hospital paid for the haircut.

The most difficult moment for Ms. Zhang came when her superiors — almost all men — told her and her female colleagues that they “lacked the spirit of devotion” and discipline after they sought help getting pads and tampons.


Only supplies cleared by the authorities can make it into the city, so getting these products had become difficult for many women. As the days wore on, she said she felt her spirit was “breaking down slowly.”

  • Updated Feb. 25, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

It took a group of volunteers to take notice and send some 2,000 adult diapers to the hospital to accommodate its 500 female workers.

Ms. Zhang said the hospital’s response to the original request hit a raw nerve for her and so many women who say it’s difficult to find time in the day just to go to the bathroom, let alone deal with menstruation while wearing a poorly made full-body protective suit. And this was not the first time that medical professionals on the front line had complained about their working conditions.

In Hubei Province nurses and doctors have pleaded for more masks, thousands of health workers have been among recent confirmed cases of infection and several have died. On Monday, medical workers in the nearby city of Wuhan wrote a letter to The Lancet medical journal asking for help and describing the conditions at hospitals as “more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined.”

Ms. Zhang echoed some of those concerns. “I worry about being infected, I miss home,” she said. Now that her assignment on the front line has ended, she is waiting out her own 14-day quarantine at a nearby hotel before she returns home to her family.

When this is all over, she said she looks forward to seeing her family again, taking a nice long bath and eating meals cooked by her mother, who on three occasions during the assignment made her meals including dishes of potatoes, carrots, lamb kebabs, scrambled eggs with chili and even rib soup. Ms. Zhang picked them up from the sidewalk outside her family home while her mother watched from a safe distance.

She also looks forward to her wedding, at which she says she plans to wear a wig. She has put down a deposit for a dress but hasn’t picked one out yet. She tries to be upbeat, especially when she talks to her fiancé. Their wedding day is scheduled for April 24.

“I hope I will not have to delay it,” she said.

Wang Yiwei contributed to reporting from Beijing.


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