Auxiliary nurse Chelo Megia soldiered on through the toughest weeks of the coronavirus epidemic as it decimated elderly residents of a Spanish care home where she has worked without taking any sick days for 15 years.
Finally, like so many other healthcare workers around the world, she contracted the virus – as well as pneumonia.
Now undergoing antiviral and antibiotic treatment at home, Megia, 49, has been wondering what went wrong and how come management and authorities never bothered to test workers at risk like her before she fell seriously ill.
“We’ve been wearing protective gear since about March 15, but before that we worked all the time with just gloves, moving people who would later die. I realize now that I have been sick for a long time,” she told Reuters by telephone.
At least 21 of the 210 residents at the Nunez De Balboa home in the east-central town of Albacete have died since the outbreak began – among thousands of elderly Spaniards to pass away in nursing homes from the COVID-19 disease.
The remaining residents are under lockdown at the care home, though the worst seems to have passed, Megia said.
Despite feeling unwell for days, she kept telling herself it was just accumulated tiredness. After all, she and other staff did “a superhuman job” of moving all residents to separate those with symptoms, while wearing full protective gear and with half the auxiliary nurses on medical leave.
“I couldn’t stop. It’s vocational,” she said. “My story is that of my colleagues, that of many people”.
Still, she was baffled by a lack of organised testing for care workers that could have prevented her from developing pneumonia and exposing others had it been done early on.
“The workers have not been tested during all this time,” she said. When Megia came down with fever and chest pains last Saturday, she and another sick colleague demanded that their boss send them to be tested, but the regional epidemiology department told her management they were not a priority.
“They replied … that the priority was to test those who had left on medical leave at the beginning of the crisis to see if they could return to work. That those of us who were working were not a priority.”
A spokesman for the Castilla-La Mancha regional health department now running the home conceded the prioritising strategy and said tests on workers began on Sunday, the same day Megia went on sick leave.
That day she took a cab and went to a hospital emergency room by herself, without even telling her family.
“In the triage area I met various friends I’d been on a course with a month earlier. I broke down in tears. Could we even imagine a month ago that we would meet like this?” she recalled.
Luckily, her blood exam was good enough for doctors to allow her home to recover. “I’m locked in my room, my kids are locked in theirs, each of us using our own cutlery. If I have to go out of my room for something, I put on protection.”
Looking back, Megia says she should have gone to the doctor sooner. “A friend told me: ‘At work you’re replaceable, they’ll hire someone else, but in your family they can’t replace you’, and she finally convinced me,” she said.