Spanish doctors hope beach trips can help ICU virus patients

Francisco España, 60, is surrounded by members of his medical team as he looks at the Mediterranean sea from a promenade next to the "Hospital del Mar" in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. A hospital in Barcelona is studying how short trips to the beach may help COVID-19 patients recover from long and traumatic intensive hospital care. The study is part of a program to “humanize” ICUs. Since re-starting it in early June, the researchers have anecdotally noticed that even ten minutes in front of the blue sea waters can improve a patient’s emotional attitude.

After nearly two months of being sedated and connected to IV lines in a hospital’s intensive care unit, Francisco Espana took a moment to fill his ailing lungs with fresh air at a Barcelona beachfront.

Lying on a hospital bed at the beach promenade and surrounded by a doctor and three nurses who constantly monitored his vital signs, Espana briefly closed his eyes and absorbed as much sunshine as possible.

“It’s one of the best days I remember,” he said.

A medical team at the Hospital del Mar — the Hospital of the Seas — is seeing if short trips to the beach just across the street can help COVID-19 patients after long and sometimes traumatic ICU stays.

Dr. Judith Marín says it is part of a program to “humanize” ICUs that the group had been experimenting with for two years before the coronavirus hit Spain.

The strict isolation protocols that have had to be adopted since mid-March undid months of efforts to integrate ICU patients with professionals in the rest of the hospital, the doctor said.

In April, the hospital was operating several additional ICU wards and expanded its normal capacity of 18 patients to 67.

“It was a big blow, coping with scarce resources and with a big emotional toll among the medical workers. We had to roll back all this great work that we had been doing in the field of therapeutic care,” Marín said. “We were suddenly reverting to the old habits of keeping relatives away from their loved ones. And it’s really hard to convey bad news over a phone call.”

Since restarting the program in early June, doctors said that even 10 minutes at the beach seems to improve a patient’s well-being. The team wants to take this anecdotal evidence further, and see whether such outdoor trips can help in the mid- and long-term recovery of COVID-19 patients.

Spain managed to bring down its infection curve with a strict three-month lockdown that ended June 21. But the country now leads Europe’s new wave of infections, with a surge that has brought to the total number of cases to nearly half a million. At least 29,400 people have died in Spain.

“It’s important to keep in mind the emotional well-being of patients and to try to work on it in the early stages of the recovery,” added Marín.

For Espana, who works in a local market and has a passion for music, his memories of 52 days in intensive care are “cloudy.”

“They say I’ve overcome something really big. I am starting to realize that I should be very happy,” the man known to his friends as “Paco” said as joggers and passers-by were attracted by the sight of a hospital bed under the boulevard’s palm trees beside the Mediterranean.

“The Paco we said goodbye to was in a very bad state. He couldn’t talk and he could hardly breathe, he was choking,” said Xavi Matute, a longtime friend who was with Espana when an ambulance brought him to the hospital.

Matute was back on Friday to greet his friend.

The warm rendezvous was followed by a quick update on everything Espana had missed, including the latest soccer developments: Real Madrid’s win of the Spanish League and Barcelona’s debacle, first with a shameful 8-2 loss that disqualified the team in the Champions League and then an unraveling drama over the future of its greatest star, Leo Messi.

For the 60-year-old Espana, the trip to the beach was a good sign.

“Let’s see if they now let me get a beer at the hospital cafeteria,” he joked before returning to the ICU.

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