BUENOS AIRES – The curve of coronavirus cases continues to trend upward in hard-hit Argentina, where front-line doctors and nurses are struggling to battle the disease even as they cope with high levels of stress and fatigue and try to ward off infection.
“We’re exposed not only physically but also psychologically and emotionally,” Patricia Rowsell, head of nursing at El Cruce public hospital in Florencia Varela, a suburb of Buenos Aires, told EFE.
Rowsell, a long-time employee of that hospital, said the team she supervises has been cut in half due to infections among members of staff or their family members and leaves of absence by at-risk personnel with pre-existing conditions.
Even so, those healthcare workers have shown enormous professional commitment that at times goes unrecognized or is not properly remunerated, she added.
“We leave here exhausted because it’s not easy to attend to patients with protective equipment that leaves marks on our faces, is really hot to wear, affects you psychologically,” Rowsell said. “There are a lot of things the community isn’t aware of, and when you go out and see (people) walking around without face coverings, getting together, meeting up, you start thinking they don’t realize how much work we’re putting in here day after day.”
While some challenges have been mere inconveniences, such as consuming less water to avoid frequent trips to the restroom, others have been matters of life or death, like the case of one nurse, Angie, who was left in critical condition after contracting the coronavirus.
“Going through that experience as professionals marked us. And it marked us so deeply that we had to enlist the help of a multidisciplinary mental health group sent to us by the (Health) Ministry because a lot of colleagues were very, very affected,” Rowsell said.
Luciana Previgliano, an intensive-care physician at a public hospital in an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood, also has suffered the anguish of seeing a colleague lapse into critical condition.
Staff at that hospital must cope with punishingly long shifts despite a doubling of the number of critical care beds and an increase in medical personnel.
“Work in intensive care was already stressful prior to the pandemic. You see up close the suffering of the patient and the family, probably the patient’s death, (are in contact) with people on the worst day of their lives,” the intensivist told EFE.
“It’s a really hard situation. Now put all that in the context of the pandemic, of having to work at all times under extreme stress. You’re always at risk of infection. A mistake can mean you infect a colleague, or that you get infected and then later a family member does,” she said.
More than 25,000 health workers in that South American country have contracted the novel coronavirus, more than 80 of whom have died, according to figures from the Trade Union Federation of Health Professionals of Argentina (Fesprosa).
“I cry a lot. I have nightmares every day. I dream things I’d never dreamed of before. I dream about patients, about things that are illogical. My rest never ends up being real rest,” Previgliano said.
Coronavirus cases are surging in Argentina, which ranks 10th in total confirmed cases and 16th in pandemic-related deaths worldwide even though a nationwide enforced quarantine has dragged on for six months, a trend some experts and medical personnel blame on the population’s irregular compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“I’m going to be bit harsh. If we make a point not to hug one another, this can be over soon. But if we don’t refrain from hugging one another, it might be never, because any of us could be infected,” Rowsell said.