Madrid hospital staff learn to cope with virus

A COVID-19 patient receives a physiotherapy session in the intensive care unit of the Severo Ochoa Hospital in Leganes, on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

A voice shouts “Red Alert!” from the end of the corridor. An ambulance has just delivered the latest resident of an elderly care home in the Spanish capital. He’s in a critical condition and time is of the essence.

A well-practiced choreography immediately goes into motion, sending an adrenaline rush through the emergency ward in this suburban Madrid hospital.

One by one, the medical team follows the steps they have revisited ever since the first coronavirus case was admitted to the Severo Ochoa Hospital one year ago. Only when the elderly man is stabilized and transferred to the so-called “red zone,” an area reserved for treating COVID-19, does the team slow down and go back to their computers.

One year ago, staff had to deal with the exasperation of fighting an unknown enemy, the fear of bringing the virus back home, the scarcity of protective gear and the bodies lined up in the morgue. At the height of contagion, the corridors of this facility of nearly 400 beds were crowded with patients on chairs and on stretchers because there were no more beds for the steady flood of new patients.

The hospital’s 10 beds with intensive care capabilities had to be expanded to 30 with a great deal of creativity and hard work. Iván Andrés, who keeps tabs on the hospital’s maintenance needs, says that oxygen tank deliveries, which normally arrive every three days, went up to twice daily.

“There were just not enough cylinders,” Andrés recalls.

Doctors, nurses, wardens, cleaners and other hospital workers still grapple with the emotional fatigue from those days and the two more surges of the virus since then, both before and after the end of the year. Most acknowledge that the pandemic has been a life-changing experience.

Dr. Manuel Delgado, who heads the hospital’s psychiatry services, says consultation from the hospital’s own staff has been on the rise and that, at the moment, the delays in vaccination and the uncertainty of not seeing a clear end of the pandemic are the sources of most worry.

“It’s tiresome to not know when this is going to end,” says the doctor at the gates of his psychiatry ward. “Having the doubt of whether we will finally get rid of it, or whether we have missed on a lot of things that we will never recover.”

Clad in full protective gear, a medical crew walks under an improvised sign that reads “Together we will pull it off” and into the intensive care ward, where a man in his sixties is crying. The mood is low, but the physiotherapy professionals bring in a moment of relief as they stretch the patient’s body.

The human touch is much welcomed by COVID-19 patients who spend long periods in isolation. When the team is done and about to leave, a nurse asks: “All good?”

The man, mustering all his strength, efforts a thumbs-up in response.

Rather than going into lockdown like last year, Spain this time opted for preserving a weak economic recovery and instead imposed night-time curfews, caps on social gatherings and mobility controls across its regions. Schools and most shops remained open, including bars and restaurants in regions like Madrid.

This approach appeared to work. The rolling two-week incidence rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, a key metric watched by epidemiologists and policymakers, dropped from a high of near 900 at the end of January to 160 on Wednesday. More than 3.2 million people have been infected and over 70,000 have died in the country since the onset of the pandemic.

Things have improved from the early days when the hospital wasn’t able to take in all the patients in need to be put on a mechanical respirator. But not everybody can sustain the invasive technique, which requires intubation and, often, long periods in an intensive care unit facing down, in the prone position, which helps the lungs to pump oxygen.

The heart of Santiago Collado, a retired driver with pre-existing health conditions, gave up on a recent day, shortly after his son and daughter were allowed to pay a last visit in full protective gear.

That’s something that would have been unthinkable one year ago, when even compassionate visits were forbidden.

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