For the first time in weeks, Dr. Mónica Rodríguez has found some respite. But even as she enjoys card games and magic tricks at her ambulance team’s base in Madrid, the emergency doctor is not letting her guard down.
Her team is only catching its breath before the next urgent call comes in, whether coronavirus-related or not.
“The virus is out there and will remain. It’s not going to disappear,” Dr. Rodríguez said during an AP photographer’s recent visit with the team.
After helping to flatten one of Europe’s sharpest contagion curves in the coronavirus pandemic, exhausted ambulance workers in Madrid fear that a resurgence in infections could mean another frantic period on the front line.
“We fear a rebound,” Dr. Rodríguez said as Spain takes its first steps to phase out a strict 7-week confinement after roughly 27,000 reported coronavirus fatalities. “Unfortunately, people are not taking enough precautions because they are not aware or they don’t have a real vision of what’s going on.”
Drawing from lessons learned when Spain had to repatriate two citizens infected with Ebola in 2014, Dr. Rodríguez’s team was specially trained to deal with epidemics. What they didn’t expect was to put those skills into practice in a pandemic that would stretch to the limit the Spanish capital’s health resources.
In the second half of March, when the full force of COVID-19 hit Spain, the SUMMA 112 service’s ambulances ferried more than 8,000 patients with COVID-19 symptoms to and between hospitals. Daily calls to the emergency hotline sometimes arrived at three times or more the normal level.
The service employs more than 2,000 people, many working part-time at hospitals or health centers. In a country where medical workers have suffered high rates of infection, 210 of them have contracted the virus.
The shift begins with a cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a routine one for the team. But all deployments these days involve extra precautions, with protective equipment and meticulous disinfection before and after.
Responding to an urgent call, the ambulance then makes its way from working-class neighborhood to upscale Madrid in a matter of minutes, taking to hospital an elderly woman with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who has lost consciousness.
Only a few weeks ago, when Madrid’s medical facilities were overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, she wouldn’t had been admitted, said Dr. Rodríguez. She remembered those difficult decisions as “war-time medicine.”
“There weren’t enough resources for everybody,” she says. “You had to apply triaging, taking one patient to hospital but not another one, leaving them at home.”
The doctor said now that the pressures are waning, those experiences are taking an emotional toll on all emergency workers. They have increasing difficulty sleeping, anxiety and “overall sadness.”
At 8 p.m., when Spaniards come out to their windows and balconies to honor medical workers, one team member discreetly takes a moment alone and returns with red eyes.
But there is little time to calm those nerves. Soon there is another call. A middle-aged man has tried to kill himself, the team is told. Speeding through empty streets and red lights, the ambulance arrives on the heels of police vehicles, with sirens wailing.
The four members of the team rush in so quickly that two of them find no time to put on protective suits. That doesn’t stop them with the resuscitation. The doctor is then told that the patient had recovered from COVID-19.
Once stabilized, the last patient of their shift is taken to hospital. Showing a mix of euphoria, adrenaline and exhaustion, the team heads home, satisfied because, at least today, there were no fatalities.
AP writer Aritz Parra contributed to this report.
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