In Rome’s hospitals, nightfall brings nightmares, fear of death
Casal Palocco: Doctors and nurses at the Casalpalocco hospital on Rome's outskirts mill silently around coronavirus patients lying motionless on their beds surrounded by machines monitoring their vital signs.
Medical staff adhere to strict security protocols. Each is clad from head to foot in a hooded white protective suit, hands ensconced in latex gloves while a mask and wrap around goggles protect the face.
Nurses regularly clean their gloves with disinfectant gel. One at a time, they head out for a gasp of fresh air -- yet even the birdsong cannot make them forget their patients for a moment. Some try to relax with a nervous drag on a cigarette.
Clad in a white overall, hospital director Antonino Marchese paints a difficult picture.
He tells AFP: "The number of infected patients is certainly higher than that given out every evening in the published official tally because many patients placed themselves in isolation without being tested. They are at home and getting slowly better.
"Other patients have probably been infected and not even realised it and have recovered," says Marchese, a shock of white hair framing a face half covered by a mask.
"The number of people infected is higher than they say," he concludes.
Though a semblance of calm is in evidence in the intensive care unit, Marchese acknowledges the problems of shortages.
"Unfortunately, we were not well prepared," he says, adding that a sudden and mass consumption spree of some staple products which followed the first cases had been a problem and "it is only now that factories are reconverting (production) to supply us.
One coronavirus sufferer who recovered is Fabio Biferali, a 65-year-old cardiologist from Rome who spent eight days "isolated from the world" in intensive care at Rome's Policlinico Umberto I.
Creeping fears of death
"I had strange pains. Being a doctor I said it was pneumonia. It was like having a marmoset on your back," Biferali recalled.
"I can't talk about this experience without crying. Tears come easily to me.
"Being a doctor helped me come through the pain. The treatment for the oxygen therapy is painful, looking for the radial artery is difficult. Desperate other patients were crying out, 'enough, enough'," he said.
"The worst thing was nighttime. I couldn't sleep, anxiety flooded the room. During the day, the doctors, maintenance staff came by, people distributing the food.
"At night, the nightmares came, death lurked.
"As I was not sleeping I was counting the breaths of the guy in the next bed with my telephone's stopwatch. I made it my job to pay attention to him. That way, I forgot about myself," he added.
He recalled that the medical staff "were completely covered, their feet, hands, head. I could only see their eyes -- affectionate eyes -- behind their glass mask. I could only hear their voices. Many were young, frontline doctors. It was a moment of hope."
Asked what he had missed during those days, Biferali said his relatives.
"I was afraid I would never see them again, of dying without being able to hold them by the hand. I was letting desperation flood through me…."
He says he has learnt one lesson from his experience: "From now on I shall fight for public health. You can't treat it as a bean counting exercise and leave it in the hands of the politicians.
"We have to defend one of the world's best health systems." - AFP