How Italy's healthcare staff survived the pandemic

Nurses across the globe have been instrumental in helping fight Covid-19, but it’s been a job that has taken a heavy toll – both physically and mentally. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Italy, the first country in Europe to be overwhelmed by the virus in 2020 – and one of the first to impose a national lockdown. On International Nurses Day, healthcare workers there who spoke to the BBC at the start of the pandemic explain how they found ways to cope with the trauma of the last year.”I never thought I would get my life back,” says Paolo Miranda, an intensive care nurse in Cremona who last year decided to document the bleak situation inside his unit by taking photographs. The portraits showed how his colleagues were coping after the first wave – as the pandemic became the “new normal” and people stopped celebrating them as heroes.”I never want to forget what happened to us. It will soon become history,” he told the BBC at the time. “Although the emergency is slowing down, we feel surrounded by darkness.”It’s like we are full of wounds. We carry everything we’ve seen inside us.”One major change has happened for Paolo since then – he’s become a dad.”We called our daughter Vittoria, which means victory. Bringing a new life into the world during such a disastrous situation gave us a lot of hope.”Paolo, who says he has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the events of the past year, says many of his colleagues have also decided to have children – almost in defiance of all the death and suffering they’ve had to endure.”My daughter is helping me so much to deal with burnout. I come home, I look at her, she smiles back… it’s wonderful.”In February 2020, Italy became the global centre of the pandemic – and a cautionary tale of what happens when a healthcare system in one of the wealthiest parts of the world collapses. At the time, Martina Benedetti, an intensive care nurse in Tuscany, told the BBC she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a nurse any more. She’s had a change of heart since then, describing her job as “wonderful”, but warned that it’s not for everyone.”I feel like I have aged 10 years. I used to be carefree and light-hearted… that person is gone.”Writing helped her cope. After a long shift, she’d go home and before bed write down her feelings, which she later turned into an e-book. Martina says it’s been particularly hard to deal with patients who denied the existence of Covid – some of whom ended up in her intensive care unit.”I had to treat people who were inciting others on social media to not wear masks, and called nurses liars.”But Martina said that on some occasions, she managed to change their minds.”One Covid denier, after they got discharged went on Facebook and wrote the exact opposite of what he used to think. It was a victory for me.”A study conducted on Italian nurses by the EngageMinds HUB research centre found those who engaged with their patients showed lower levels of PTSD and burnout.

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