Unzipping the heavy white tent flap and stepping into the inflated dome feels immediately alien, foreign – an unsettled sense, which is only heightened by a hoard of machines with their colored blinking lights and blaring alarms and bulbous tubes running from their boxy structures into human mouths and noses. Crisscrossed layers of medical tape secure the tubes snaking down throats into lungs that have become so riddled with infection that they cannot function without oxygen being forced into them.
Chests, many of them already frail and fragile, mechanically rise and fall with each methodical pump of their attached ventilators. Some patients stir with more awareness, gazing through half-lidded eyes at the gowned and goggled and gloved beings swirling around their bedsides. One wonders where the patients’ thoughts have taken them, if they understand what has happened, why they have landed in the middle of this bizarre scene that should belong only in a science fiction movie. Here, they are fighting for their lives in a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital, set up in a heavy-duty vinyl tent in a parking lot in northern Italy.
During the end of February, the city hospital in Cremona was quickly overwhelmed by a deluge of COVID-19 patients being admitted from Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region. The hospital had no choice but to dedicate 500 of its 600 beds solely to the treatment of those impacted by the virus. Medical staff were fatigued and falling ill themselves, while an overflow of patients on gurneys lined the lobbies, hallways, and spare corners of the hospital.
“It’s like a bomb,” said Dr. Angelo Pan
Pan is an infectious disease specialist at Cremona Hospital. In 1984, he treated the second patient in Italy to be diagnosed with AIDS. Though the two diseases are quite different, he said the frustrations of trying to treat an unknown virus are the same.
“You don’t know how to manage it and you try to use different drugs and you hope they will work. It’s frustrating, definitely.”
Walking through the city hospital’s hallways, the huffing of ventilators seems vastly out of place coming from rooms decorated with benign murals of smiling mothers and children playing. Some patients sit with clear plastic bubbles over their heads, the inflatable containers that are filled with concentrated oxygen to help them breathe easier giving the impression the wearer is on the verge of a deep-sea dive. Other patients are turned onto their stomachs, pronated to help relieve the pressure on their lungs.
Tears well in the eyes of Paolo Merli, an ICU nurse at Cremona Hospital. He can’t find the words to describe the emotional battle that he has faced each day for more than a month, as he struggles to care for his patients while living in constant fear that he will bring the deadly virus back to infect his loved ones at home.
Clelia Roncaglio, a fellow nurse for two years, echoes those fears, yet humbly deflects credit for her hard work to the seasoned co-workers who are battling the disease alongside her. Sometimes, she said, her only strength comes from being able to care for people she knows, so she can update their families on their condition.
“There is some light in the dark, but it’s really, really small,” Clelia said.
Each layer of the personal protective equipment donned by Samaritan’s Purse doctors and nurses before caring for the sick seems to erase another bit of their humanity: Rubber boots. Gloves. Gown. Mask. Hair net. Goggles. Second pair of gloves.
Finally, all that remains visible are their eyes, peering through fogged goggles or chlorine-spotted face shields. Becoming invisible as individuals, they rely on these layers to shield them from the invisible threat of coronavirus.
Still, each day the staff pray that somehow their patients will feel how much they are loved by them and by God.
“I pray that patients see Jesus in us,” said ICU nurse Shannon Wood.
Inside the wards, compassion and care is packed into each small, intentional gesture. Nurses clasp a set of nervous fingers, stroke a tense shoulder, or brush fevered hair from a wrinkled forehead. Staff bow their heads when a patient requests prayer. And each one still smiles, the grins seen not on upturned mouths, but in every set of eyes.
“We are covered in PPE and all they can see is my eyes,” Shannon said, “I pray that I’m able to love on these patients…and just hold their hand while they are anxious, and that they’re able to see Jesus.”
“You have a special place in my heart. I will remember you in my prayers,” said 91-year-old Claudio, pictured below, with his Canadian nurses Savannah and Alyssa.
“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
“Cast your cares on the Lord, and He will sustain you.”
“She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”
As they wage war against the little-known virus attacking their patients, the doctors and nurses serving with Samaritan’s Purse often turn to Bible verses when they feel overwhelmed. They rely on their faith to sustain them, from the midst of chaos when a patient is coding in the ICU to the midnight hours that stretch on through the cold nights. Many say it is a privilege to be asked to pray with and for their patients.
“Asking them, ‘Is there anything I can do to pray for you?’ A lot of times they’re like, ‘Yes!’ and they’ll give you specific things…and you can just see, many of them are about to cry,” said Stephanie Morales. “You’ll sometimes be checking their oxygen and their heart rate, and their heart rate will be up. They’re so anxious, and then we’re praying, and you see that thing just come down.”
Whether airlifting our Emergency Field Hospital to Italy in the wake of disease outbreak, or responding to earthquakes and armed conflict, Samaritan’s Purse stands ready to respond in the face of a myriad of medical crises. Your gift will help bring expert treatment, other basic needs and the hope of the Gospel to the sick and suffering.