Doctors in Spain ‘totally overwhelmed’ as hospitals reach coronavirus breaking point amid soaring death toll

‘I feel exhausted, physically and emotionally. And frustrated to be working in these conditions,’ doctor tells Graham Keeley in Madrid

Friday 27 March 2020 13:40 GMT
Spain's coronavirus toll surged above 4,800 on Friday
Spain's coronavirus toll surged above 4,800 on Friday (AFP)

Every day when Juan Garcia starts his shift on the intensive care ward, the fear is overriding.

A doctor at the Hospital La Paz in Madrid, he is working on the front line in the battle against the coronavirus outbreak.

What scares this 39-year-old intensive care specialist is the profile of the patients coming down with the illness.

“I feel fear, lots of fear. Firstly, for my family because the majority of patients we have in ICU are the same age as my parents. Most were healthy with no previous health problems,” Garcia tells The Independent.

“Secondly, I am scared for my own safety because we have also had patients who are aged between 30 and 40. It is a lottery and there is no way to know if you will become part of the 80 per cent of patients who have a slight form of the illness or the other percentage who are seriously ill.”

Spain is grappling with an unprecedented healthcare crisis. On Friday, the number of people killed by coronavirus leapt by a record 769 in just 24 hours to 4,858, health authorities said. This is the highest rise in one day in the country since the start of the pandemic. The total number infected stands at 64,059.

Many health workers in Garcia’s hospital have come down with the virus – some are in self-isolation at home, while others have had to be admitted to intensive care.

It’s a national crisis, with more than 9,400 health workers across the country testing positive for the virus, Spain’s health emergency chief confirmed on Friday.

Garcia says the hospital, like many others in Spain, is totally unprepared to cope with the scale of the outbreak.

At La Paz, there are 800 patients with coronavirus and another 85 in intensive care.

“I feel exhausted, physically and emotionally. And frustrated to be working in these conditions,” he explains.

“The Spanish health system is not designed in terms of buildings, human resources and material to deal with so many patients in such short a time. We are working round the clock.”

Dr Garcia should work eight-hour shifts but in reality the average day is at least ten.

I am okay when I am working because you are just so busy you do not have time to think. But it is hard when I come out and go home. I burst into tears the other day and cried all the way home

Ester Gonzalez, auxiliary nurse

“We stay longer to give other staff a hand. My life is going to the hospital and going home,” he says.

Some doctors have had trouble sleeping because of the stress of the situation.

“At the moment I am sleeping okay. I think the tiredness helps,” says Garcia.

At the Hospital Puerta de Hierro, also in Madrid, Sara Alcantara admits that the sheer volume of patients arriving in the intensive unit forces her to make quick decisions, which perhaps she regrets later.

An intensive care specialist, Alcantara, 38, is part of a team treating the most ill patients.

“I feel various things right now. One is frustration because the ill people don’t stop coming and sometimes I have to make decisions quickly which leave a bad taste in your mouth,” she tells The Independent.

Not knowing when the outbreak in Spain may start to peak is playing on her mind.

“I feel uncertainty because we have no idea when the number of cases are going to stop rising,” she says.

A health worker transfers a patient on a stretcher at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganes, Spain (AFP)

Dr Alcantara, who has also worked in the US and Britain, is outraged that the government has not enforced a total lockdown to try to contain the virus.

The Spanish government declared a state of emergency on 14 March, ordering the closure of non-essential shops and schools. People have been told to stay at home except in the case of buying food or medicine.

“I think our government is so scared of the economic impact of this that they have not done everything that they should have done,” she says.

“It doesn’t make sense that people are confined to their homes but then many carry on working. They are building new homes next to my house and the workers arrive at 7am. They are arriving in a normal bus. We should have stopped all activity apart from the absolutely essential services.”

She warns that Britain has woken up to the scale of the epidemic too late.

“We cannot understand why, having seen what has happened in Italy and here, they have not stopped all activity in the UK. I sincerely hope that things in Britain don’t reach the proportions that they have here.”

In some hospitals, managers have forbidden doctors from speaking out about the real situation.

However, Dr Carlos Riesco, a gynaecologist at Hospital Puerta de Hierro, decided to take to social media to voice his anger.

He was inspired by a live television address to the nation by King Felipe VI last week calling on Spaniards to “unite around the same objective: to overcome this serious situation”.

Dressed in his hospital gown and wearing a protective mask, Riesco posted a video in which he says: “I have just come from one of the most difficult days in the hospital so far and I could not resist saying that [the king’s speech] was so far removed from what is really happening. Just saying we will all get through this together is not good enough.”

The video went viral with many other health workers agreeing with the doctor’s sentiments.

“As in many hospitals, there are not enough masks or impermeable gowns,” Riesco tells The Independent.

“It means in the rest of the hospital we have to improvise in order to cover ourselves.”

Images have emerged of doctors in Spain being forced to use plastic bags as protective gear amid critical shortages.

The emotional strain on staff is telling. Ester Gonzalez, an auxiliary nurse at the Hospital Carlos III in Madrid, says she broke down after finishing a shift.

“I am okay when I am working because you are just so busy you do not have time to think. But it is hard when I come out and go home. I burst into tears the other day and cried all the way home,” she says.

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