Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘This looks like operating in a war zone’: Italian doctor who treated Italy’s ‘Patient 1’ battles to save lives from coronavirus

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Roberto Rizzardi is a doctor who has been running the emergency room of San Matteo hospital, in Pavia, 25 miles south of Milan, for 25 years. He has been catapulted onto the front line of the ‘war’ against coronavirus — this is his story.

It all started when the man widely believed to be Italy’s “Patient 1” was carried from the small town of Lodi, on the western bank of the River Adda, in Lombardy, to Policlinico San Matteo. His condition had rapidly deteriorated due to pneumonia.

“As an emergency doctor, I’m used to facing critical situations that rapidly get worse,” Dr. Roberto Rizzardi, who has run the hospital’s ER for a quarter-century, told MarketWatch. “My experience in Africa has taught me how to keep calm in extreme times. But I would never have imagined seeing it here.”

‘My experience in Africa has taught me how to keep calm in extreme times. But I would never have imagined seeing it here.’

Roberto Rizzardi, the doctor who’s run the ER of Italy’s San Matteo hospital, in Pavia, for 25 years

Beds and ventilators can be found in every corner of the hospital. Any space can be used to save a life.

Specialized wards have disappeared: Three levels of the entire building have been converted and dedicated to COVID-19 positive patients.

Physicians were forced to put their specializations aside.

“Everyone had to learn a new job very quickly: how to handle ventilators, how to read indicators on monitors, how to regulate pressure in breathing tubes. This looks like operating in a war zone,” Rizzardi said.

As one of the first who faced the tsunami of infection in Lombardy, northern Italy, Rizzardi had to rethink the space in his ward.

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He also had to face a lack of protective equipment and staff.

Those lucky enough to find some gear “had to get used to wearing a protective suit, and working with all of the equipment on,” he said.

“When even your face is covered with a mask and a visor, you are not able to eat, drink or even go to the toilet for several hours. Actually even hunger and thirst are set aside,” he said, adding that everyone is exhausted. “We lose almost 4 pounds every day after every shift.”

‘When even your face is covered with a mask and a visor, you are not able to eat, drink or even go to the toilet for several hours.’

They have had to improvise in ways they had never imagined.

“In the first days of emergency, after two weeks of overuse, our central oxygen system was about to crash out,” he said. “We had to put a sort of bypass, in order to save oxygen and to distribute it widely to more patients. The problem was fixed in a few hours.”

The staff also have had to invent smart strategies to use their phones, which are essential for speaking to medical colleagues.

“If you touch your phone every so often, you have to wash your hands and change gloves,” he said. “This makes your skin so dry that you get lacerations on the knuckles.”

Rizzardi came up with a solution, nominating one person to man the phone and then equipping everyone else with walkie-talkies that broadcast the audio.

“I provided every member with a walkie-talkie, covered in plastic and disposable film,” he said. “A nurse answers, takes consulting requests, then reaches each member by a radio call. This is how we applied our resourcefulness to an extreme situation.”

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The cost to Rizzardi of acting on the front line during the most complicated weeks of the epidemic was the sacrifice of his own health. After three weeks of seemingly never-ending shifts, Rizzardi caught the virus and was forced to halt his activity.

His isn’t an isolated case: Almost 12% of people found COVID-positive in Italy are in the category of health-service workers — the pandemic has already taken the lives of 66 doctors (according to official sources).

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When asked how he feels now, having overcome the illness and self-quarantine, his thoughts quickly return to his job.

The fight against the virus will continue for Dr. Rizzardi.

“I’ll be tested on April 3 for the first time, then I’ll do the second check the day after,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be back to work on April 6.”

This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’

MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

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