‘It's hard to leave a disaster to come back to a disaster’: US doctors on the coronavirus front line in Italy

Medics trying to save lives in Italy fear returning to the same catastrophe back home

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Less than 24 hours after the Emergency Field Hospital opened in Italy, the Intensive Care Unit was full with patients suffering from COVID-19.
Less than 24 hours after the Emergency Field Hospital opened in Italy, the Intensive Care Unit was full with patients suffering from COVID-19. Credit: Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse

In the intensive care unit at Cremona Hospital, northern Italy, no patient has survived the coronavirus.

The 600-bed facility, situated around an hour outside Milan, is currently treating 500 people for the virus - 100 of whom are medical staff who contracted it while taking care of patients.

“The situation here in Italy is desolate,” said Alyssa Benson, project coordinator for the international relief charity, Samaritan’s Purse. “Hospitals are overrun and people are really struggling to provide the care that is necessary to keep up with a virus such as this.”

Samaritan’s Purse usually deploys to developing countries, which are affected by war, famine, or natural disasters. This week, they opened a 68-bed emergency facility in the car park of Cremona Hospital. 

Operational 24 hours a day and manned by around 70 staff, from the US, Canada and the UK, the emergency field hospital currently has eight patients on ventilators in its ICU.

After recording its first coronavirus case on January 31, Italy has quickly become the worst affected country by the virus. The death toll is now more than double China’s, currently standing at around 6,800, while the government has enforced even stricter measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Italians can now be fined a maximum of 3,000 euros if they are caught outside their homes without a valid motive. They have also been ordered to stay inside their municipality, leaving only for work or to buy medicine. But despite these additional measures, and this week’s glimmer of hope that deaths had started to slow in the country, the situation on the ground is still desperate.

The Emergency Field Hospital in Cremona, Italy. Credit: Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse
On March 20, Samaritan’s Purse doctors and nurses began treating patients at the Emergency Field Hospital in Cremona, Italy Credit: Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse

Five days after opening, the Samaritan’s Purse Emergency Field Hospital is now full. They’ve been able to assist the main hospital by taking on some of their patients and freeing up space in wards. 

Inaccurately, the coronavirus has repeatedly been described as a disease which only affects the elderly, but patients at the temporary hospital are as young as 18, ranging up to 67 years old.

“It affects people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Benson. “We are seeing people who are younger who are getting this virus and it may not affect them as severely, or they may recover quicker, but it is affecting them and that's something that we need to take into consideration.”

Though Cremona is known for being a quiet city, its streets are “eerie”, Benson said. “There's no cars, there's no people, all you hear are ambulances…(it’s) a really good picture of the severity of this situation.”

While the organisation’s doctors and nurses fight to save lives in Cremona, thoughts often turn to home. In the US, nearly 70,000 people are now infected with the coronavirus, and the death toll has surpassed 1,000. New York City alone has more than 30,000 cases.

The 68-bed respiratory care unit is set up in the parking lot of the Cremona Hospital Credit: Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse
The Italian Air Force and Lombardy Region Civil Protection volunteers worked alongside Samaritan's Purse to set up the Emergency Field Hospital in Cremona, Italy. Credit: Courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse

“We are very aware this is a global pandemic,” said Benson. “Our families and friends back in the United States are being currently affected by this and the numbers are growing daily.”

The staff are being kept up to date by colleagues back in their home hospitals, but there are fears the US could be heading in the same direction. The US is only “a couple of weeks ahead” of Italy, Benson said, and they are really encouraging people to “heed the warnings” and stay home. 

“We would hate to see something like this happen in the United States on scale that we're seeing in Italy,” said Benson. “One of our nurses said it best saying: ‘It's hard to leave a disaster to come back to a disaster’. “

But there is some hope. Two patients in the Samaritan’s Purse ICU, who were previously on ventilators, have been showing signs of improvement and will move onto wards in the coming days.

“We're just praying that they continue to stay healthy and what a testament that would be to the people of Italy,” said Benson. “A sense of hope, that these patients may survive this virus.”