Siena hospital, Italy, 10 May 2020 -- 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.
"Send forth your light and your truth; may they be my guide." Ps 42
As an infectiologist, I observed COVID-19 from afar, already in China's time, in suspense like everyone else regarding the future: would it stop like SARS and MERS, its first cousins, or would it 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. It was a gradual "unveiling" that allowed me to prepare my heart for the days to come, until the foreseen and expected shock struck. Just as a message that a direct and intense look from a friend can covey, without saying a word to each other, I knew that I would soon be in the middle of it. The last community liturgy in which I was able to participate was the Liturgy of the Ashes. I participated in that a few hours before my separation from my family and from the oratory. I chose this separation with the intention of protecting the people I love from a possible contagion 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 couldn’t do without: among them the Bible, my rosary and some books by Don Bosco that would keep me company. For the first month I lived without the companionship of my family, with Jesus in my heart, the company of the daily Word offered by the Church, my mother, Pope Francis at the helm with his morning Mass, and the sweet and strong guidance of my spiritual director at the most difficult moments. I worked hard, studied COVID-19 during the rest and prayed to the Lord that He would give me His gaze and only His gaze when reading the events.
"And it was night." John 1:30 p.m.
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. However, 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 multitude of health-care equipment – respirators, central venous catheters, pumps, all essential for the recovery of their health – violated, nevertheless, their suffering bodies. The tears of the nurses, blessed angels bent over by fatigue and by real emotional exhaustion, added to the dignified dismay of the patients. At the end of our visit 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.
My colleague shared with me a message from a religious. It explained everything:
“In the course of the painful way of Jesus to Calvary, on which we meditate during this Lenten season, a woman named Veronica dried the bloodied face of the Lord and a man named Simon of Cyrene helped him carry the cross. Today, in this painful Way of the Cross of our homeland, it is you, dear doctors, dear nurses, medical assistants, volunteers and sanitation workers, who are doing this task of consoling and helping us to carry this heavy cross. Christ and his grieving mother are grateful to you and suffer with you. Do not feel lonely in this mysterious affair that is in the process of changing the world. When you feel discouraged and oppressed by this burden, they, Jesus and Mary, will be the ones to wipe away your sweat and take up the Cross. Jesus in the Eucharist in the chapel of your hospital is the source of your strength and courage. I entrust you to Mary's immaculate heart so that she may protect you and your loved ones" (1). Once again, consolation from a man of God and a confirmation from the heart that we needed nothing else: only to remain within the embrace of the Eucharist, firm in the Lord, firm in our Hope in Him, our strength.
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, no one would intubate him, knowing his basic health condition: I had to tell 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."
"Behold, I will do something new; Now it shall spring forth; Can't you see it?" Is 43.19
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, 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. "Foolish and slow of heart to believe."... after 48 hours of internal struggle I welcomed him and surrendered. He also walked away from the rest of the family and joined me. 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.
I continued to pray that, at least for Easter, the COVID patients who wished to could receive the Eucharist. "My Lord and my God" Jn 20:28 . To be united with the Lord, where the law does not even allow family members to enter, would have been the greatest consolation, would have given their hearts the certainty of being loved by the Lord without measure, would have been an Easter gift for them. 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, through hands and faces that "reason like John, with the intelligence of the heart" (2). 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." Another friend and colleague, a reanimator, had joined the process; We were four of us. A few days later our Pastor, Archbishop Augusto Paolo Lojudice, met us. He gave us in a familiar and prayerful atmosphere, the mandate "ad Actum" of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, so that in this pandemic, the most fragile will never lack the true Bread of life.
You were wandering like sheep, but now you have been led back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls" 1 Pt. Our heart finally rested, and it was no longer an intuition, but a certainty of the soul, that the presence in the COVID ward is a privilege.
"He is not here. He is risen."Mt 28,6
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.
"Near or far I always think of you." Don Bosco 10 May 1884
I lived in a parallel world during this period, but "near or far I have always thought of you my dear young people" even if only rarely and even though I could almost never communicate it to you in real time. I did think of you but, 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 I could be at peace: 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 a very hard; they are an extreme test for humanity and the world, for families and for each one of us, although to different degrees; 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 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 Sansoni, Infectiologist, c/o the Hospital of Siena with Andrea Lapi, Internist c/o the Hospital of Siena ; Salesian Cooperators at the Oratory La Magione of Siena
1) Message sent by Don Alvaro parish priest of the Cathedral of Arezzo
2) Homily of Easter 2020; Mons Augusto Paolo Lojudice