I finally respond to the gentle request for a testimony of these two and a half months I spent in the company of Coronavirus-19. As I start writing, the knot in my throat grows tighter and my eyes fog up: I am surprised by this reaction, but I accept it.
For about three weeks I have preparing myself to write; I could bring myself to do it only today, after a happy meeting on zoom with the young university students of the Oratory. We were led by Fr. Emanuele in a reading of our times in the company of the disciples of Emmaus.
As an infectiologist, I observed COVID-19 from afar, while it was still contained within China. In suspense I regarded the future: would it stop like its first cousins SARS and MERS or would it come to overwhelm us as it was doing in China? At a certain point in my observation, it was clear to me that it would arrive in Italy, and at our hospital in Siena as well.
By keeping one eye on the future I was able to prepare my heart for the days to come, until the foreseen and expected shock struck. Just as a direct and intense look from a friend can convey a message without saying a word, I knew that I would soon be in the middle of this disaster.
The last community liturgy in which I was able to participate was the Ash Wednesday. Just a few hours later, I was separated from my family and from the oratory. I chose this separation with the intention of protecting the people I love from the possible contagions that could befall me, as it did many other health-care workers. It was a painful ripping apart; a real Lent within Lent, a fast from the most powerful and intimate affections and relationships.
I welcomed it and surrendered it to the Lord.
I wrote to my parish priest and friend, "I have with me everything I need, the Lord, the Word, your affection". It was not possible to confess to my spiritual director nor to my parish priest because of the lockdown. I looked for the hospital chaplain and put myself in God's grace. I brought with me a few things that I just could not do without, among them my Bible, my rosary and some books by Don Bosco that would keep me company.
The days that followed saw us overwhelmed by events. The sick almost always arrived in the middle of the night, in the dark, when energy is low and strength depleted. They were torn apart from their families, with no possibility of visits, no friendly faces, no direct contact, no comfort of a confession or the Eucharist in those moments that could be their last.
The only interaction they had was with us.
Even so, this was an interaction deprived of every visible human characteristic, through layers of personal protective equipment, a distorted voice, a look through an often fogged-up visor. The use of a range of health-care equipment such as respirators, central venous catheters and pumps, all essential for the recovery of their health, rescuing their violated, suffering bodies.
The protective equipment required to fight such a deadly disease can have something of an alienating effect between doctor and patient.
The tears of the nurses, blessed angels bent over by fatigue and by total emotional exhaustion, added to the dignified dismay of the patients. At the end of our visits with them, we would contact their family members one by one, to give them news, to give them clinical comfort when recovery was foreseeable, to always provide them some humane support:
"Don't worry, you cannot be here; but, we are close to them; we don't leave them; we are with them, next to them, together with them, We are fighting alongside with them and we shall do our best to send them back to you."
At the end of the phone call they left us grateful. Sometimes I cried: the pain I saw around me was so severe; and the condition of the patients was inhuman. I accepted it and passed it over to the Lord. It was Lent.
One morning I found a friend of mine in the ward, a man of great faith. He had already been ill before COVID-19 and was among the patients in respiratory failure. I had not yet thought about the possibility of having to accompany a friend along this path and I was afraid of losing him. If he got worse, we would not be able to put him on a ventilator; such were the overwhelming demands on the system - I had to explain this to his family with great pain.
Every morning I would get the strong desire to bring him at least the comfort of the Eucharist, but I was not a minister of the Eucharist. He was in respiratory failure and the chaplains were not allowed to enter there. Very often during the day I prayed: "Lord, if you want to go in there, you need to show us the way in."
The thought began to grow within me that, what at first sight seemed only a danger, a pain, an immense task, was perhaps an absolute privilege in the eyes of the Lord; I began to feel the lightness of being grateful.
After a month of work, patients grew in number and it became necessary to bring in specialists from other fields to build a multidisciplinary work team. Andrea, my husband, an internist (a doctor who focuses primarily on internal organs), came over to work in the COVID-ward. That was a most difficult moment for me. I wanted to protect him, defend him, shield him but after 48 hours of internal struggle I welcomed him and surrendered.
A period of extreme hard work began, but supported by a sacred, calm, stable, sweet and safe conjugal rhythm, marked by the Eucharist, the meditation of the Word, the Good Morning with the Gospel, the Novena to Mary Help of Christians ... everything even more beautiful and stronger than ever, with the lighted candles of prayer and hope. Never has it been so beautiful and sweet.
In the meantime, our children, by now young adults, between their work and study, acted as a fortress for their 94-year-old grandmother. That was a great relief for us from the worry about caring for the elderly at home. They would also bring us take-away dinners, symbolic of their concern for us at our work. It was clear that everyone was trying to perform their task with docility and love. We were grateful.
To be united with the Lord through Eucharist, where the law does not even allow family members to enter, would have been the greatest Easter gift for our patients. On Holy Saturday I was contacted by a fellow anaesthesiologist, who is also an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. We quickly got ourselves organized. With the help of the chaplains of the hospital and my friend and colleague who was on duty, on Easter Day, the Lord visited the sick in the COVID ward.
It was a great consolation, a sweet caress and an immense joy, expressed with gratitude by the patients themselves. It is a fact that when the Lord wants something, he gets it done. My friend and colleague wrote me on Easter Day: "In the ward today, we had the opportunity to "prescribe" Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the only hope and salvation of our hearts, our souls and every disease. Thanks to you, with esteem and gratitude."
As days went by the tension slackened; the organization became more and more solid; the conditions of many patients stabilized; we were able to send many of them back to their families. The moment of discharge was often an event of mutual love bathed in tears of joy and gratitude. We were never able to embrace each other but we had achieved a union of hearts.
My friend, whom I had been afraid of losing, was also discharged by Andrea at Easter time. Many churches in Siena had prayed for him. Here is one of his reflections:
"The flood of prayer that flowed over me drew me out of the shoal of the stream and pushed me towards the source of salvation. The breath of the Spirit mixed with your prayers drew me away from the heart of a nightmare. The love that held the helm led me to the safe port. The communion of saints raised along with you a chorus of petition to the power, mercy and goodness of God for me, who am a poor sinner. But who will ever understand how far God's mercy goes beyond our calculations?"
The Lord became his companion and never left him lonely.
Through all this period, I lived in a parallel world away from the young people of the oratory. Still, as Don Bosco himself said, "Near or far I have always thought of you my dear young people" yet not because of the activities we could not do, not because of the temporarily closed doors of the oratory, not because of the many opportunities for pastoral life that we were apparently losing.
This may be paradoxical, but I felt peace: I knew the Spirit was arousing a flowering of prayer initiatives and unimaginable pastoral events, beautiful and with a creativity that only love could generate. Your energy and your heart were explosive even in times of this pandemic, just as your docility to events was reassuring.
These times are very hard; they are an extreme test for humanity and the world, for families and for each one of us but they are not times of spiritual death. As I saw new things blossoming in the COVID ward, I sensed that the same was happening in the open air, under the guidance of the Lord; it was enough to desire it, to seek it, to want it and to ask for eyes capable of seeing the new things that the Spirit was preparing for us.
I thought of you instead, in spiritual motherhood, about the "fundamentals of life", asking myself whether we had passed the coordinates on to you faithfully or had we betrayed you by sweetening the message. I wondered whether we had asked the right questions.
Had we prepared our hand luggage well for the journey, putting into it everything we need to take care of our wounds and to face a path of losses that, sooner or later in life, reaches us and does not allow us an escape?
I wondered whether, in practice, we are clear what our destination is. This very hard blow from the pandemic helps us become more aware. It is precisely on this that Don Bosco was clearer than anyone else and left no room for "human respect".
I would like us to seek together the profound meaning of what we are living. I hope that, with the Lord as our travelling companion, we open our eyes and are filled with an all-Salesian joy, that we return to Jerusalem with Jesus in our hearts.
This year I don't think it will be possible to go camping in the mountains of Les Combes, in Valle d'Aosta, as we had planned, but I still dream of a camp where we can sing together of the beauty of life and Paradise.
Anna is an Infectiologist working amidst one of the many epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Hospital of Siena in Italy. She is also a Salesian Cooperator at the Oratory La Magione of Siena