MILAN – The coronavirus brings with it forced isolation: Family members can't visit hospitalized patients. Nursing homes bar their doors to outsiders. People with mild cases or who have been in contact with infected persons must stay in quarantine.
Cristina Settembrese spends her days caring for COVID-19 patients in a hospital ward, and when she goes home, her personal isolation begins by her own choice.
The 54-year-old has been a nurse since she was 18. Two months ago, the infectious disease ward where she works at San Paolo Hospital in Milan started treating only COVID-19 patients. Suddenly, she had to learn how to operate machines she likens to “helmets” to help patients breathe. She studied the operating instructions at home in a kind of self-taught cram course.
While patients with coronavirus often experience mild or moderate symptoms, possible complications like pneumonia can put their lives at risk.
Two days after Italy’s first confirmed case in late February, Settembrese sent her 24-year-old daughter, Rebecca, from their home in the Milan suburb of Basiglio to live with her sister. The nurse was worried she might inadvertently infect her daughter.
She chats with Rebecca, who leans over a first-floor balcony, whenever Settembrese can pass by. A single parent, her only companion now in her apartment is her Chihuahua, Pepe, who gets bundled in a faux leopard-skin coat for a walk.
On her way to the hospital eight kilometers (five miles) away, Settembrese stops at her parents’ bakery. From the sidewalk, Settembrese waves to her mother with a rubber-gloved hand. Her mother makes treats for her co-workers, among them a casatiello, a kind of braided bread studded with eggs and salami that’s a specialty of her parents’ native Naples.
Walking Pepe and chatting with fellow dog owners at a safe distance “is my only social life,” Settembrese says. The northern region of Lombardy is the area of Italy with the country’s most cases and deaths.
But Settembrese speaks of her new family — her patients and colleagues — with whom she has forged bonds in these past fraught weeks.
The patients “live their life alone. Sometimes they die alone,’’ Settembrese says.
Before she leaves work for the night, she reviews with her colleagues how the patients are faring. Not just how well they are breathing but whether they feel angry or distraught because relatives have died from COVID-19.
Once off-duty, the nurses call each other to ask how their patients are doing.
“We feel a little like we’re their family,” Settembrese says. “They are patients who enter into your soul.”
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.
This is the second in a three-part series looking at front-line medical personnel at work and at home in Italy.