‘They weren’t supposed to be heroes’ — Italy’s lost doctors
Many of the first victims of coronavirus were those charged with responding to it.
MILAN — At the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic last year, the Italian province of Bergamo had to call in military trucks to haul away hundreds of coffins because the city’s crematoriums were already over capacity.
Among the first victims of the virus were general practitioners who, as a result of decades of health care cuts and the closure of small provincial hospitals, had become many Italians’ sole recourse for care.
Face masks weren’t yet mandatory or easily available, not even for doctors’ offices. Many of them would get sick: Since the start of the pandemic, at least 340 doctors have died of complications from the virus, most of them general practitioners.
Valeria Leone, whose husband Vincenzo, a doctor, died in March last year aged 65, likened the fate of these doctors to that of Italian soldiers being sent to the Russian front in World War II without shoes. Very few returned.
“This is what happened to our husbands, the Lombardy region and the state did not protect them and did not protect us, their families,” she said.
POLITICO spoke to the widows of four general practitioners who died last spring as a result of exposure to sick patients. They opened the doors to their late husbands’ now empty practices and spoke about their grief, anger and disappointment in a government they say abandoned doctors at a critical time.
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Valeria Leone and her husband Vincenzo met and started dating in high school in Sicily, before moving to Bergamo to raise their children, Carlo and Giacomo. On the one-year anniversary of his death, Leone said she was “reliving those hellish days” and felt that her “pain is mixed with anger.”
“The region only sent my husband a disposable shirt. He kept a safe distance, but it was impossible not to get sick in those conditions,” said Leone.
When Vincenzo came down with a cough and a low fever, the city’s health services were already overrun with patients.
“We tried to call the ambulance, but no one could come out because they were all already busy,” Valeria recalled, in tears. She took him to the hospital in her car. As he was wheeled into the emergency room on a stretcher, a coffin came out the opposite door.
“My husband looked at me and whispered, ‘Bad sign, Valeria,'” she said. She patted him on the head and told him not to say silly things. It was the last time they saw each other.
“I am angry because while Vincenzo was dying, the medical heroes’ campaign was starting,” she said, referring to efforts — in Italy and beyond — to recognize doctors’ work by clapping for them every evening and otherwise honoring their sacrifices.
“They weren’t supposed to be heroes,” she said. “They should have been helped by their country.”
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When Maria Corrada Cassarà’s husband Antonino ran out of masks in February last year, “he stopped at all the pharmacies in the city, but nothing,” she recalled.
He tried to reach the regional health agency but received no answer and, as a result, was “forced to do heroic deeds” and work without any protective equipment, said Corrada Cassarà, a high school literature teacher. “He had a lot of patients to care for. So he did his duty.”
In late February, he came home from the clinic shivering and suffering from a headache. The next day, he woke up with a high temperature and from there the ordeal began.
“One of the last messages he sent me from the hospital was a photo with an oxygen helmet, he wrote: ‘I look like an astronaut, look at what I have become,’” Corrada Cassarà recalled. He was intubated and died in late March, at the age of 66.
Corrada Cassarà said she is deeply angry with the Lombardy region, which she said hasn’t learned from its early blunders.
“Over time, discomfort and anger have been added to the pain,” she said. “They are too disorganized. After my husband’s death, they called me and told me that his personal protection materials had come in, but Antonio was already gone.”
She and her husband had been together for 47 years. They were nearing retirement and starting to imagine their life together without work. If authorities had been more competent, Antonino would still be alive, she said.
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Maria Antonella Mariani, a general practitioner, was the first to get sick in her family. But her husband Michele, also a doctor, would be the one to succumb to the disease. He was 67.
What hurts her most is watching her son grow up without a father. “All of a sudden I found myself alone, having to fill the role of my husband as well,” she said. “Even though I knew very little about it, I had to explain how the engine in the car works to my son while he was studying for his driver’s license. It was something they wanted to do together.”
She and her son feel isolated and alone, she said, especially when the pandemic prevented them from spending Christmas with their extended family. “We are distraught, and my husband’s patients are sad too; overnight they found themselves without a point of reference,” she said through tears.
She became emotional as she opened the door to her husband’s office. She hadn’t been here in over a year, she said.
“Until the end, Michele was worried about us,” she said. “To make him laugh in the hospital, I sent him photos of our son who was doing home school in his pajamas.”
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Alessandra Lombardo, a pianist and music teacher lost her husband Gianbattistsa, also a general practitioner.
Her husband’s story is similar. He went to work without protective gear, not wanting to abandon his patients. When he got sick, he was taken to a hospital, where he was intubated and appeared to be recovering.
“He was back to life, we were sure he would come home,” Lombardo said. “He called us, he wrote to us and he was very happy.” An unexpected complication undid that progress, and he died soon after.
“It was a Wednesday night the last time I spoke to him,” she said. “He looked me in my eyes in a weird way. I could see all his anguish.”