Doctor Cristina Fernandez stands in a residential Madrid stairway, both feet in a red plastic bag while a coworker gingerly peels off her personal protective equipment (PPE), taking care to only touch the inside of her disposable overalls.
“The exterior could be contaminated,” explains Juan Carlos Lopez, an ambulance technician with Summa 112, the only first-responders’ unit to cover the whole Madrid region, where the coronavirus outbreak has raged.
Spain has reported more cases of the new coronavirus than anywhere but the United States and its death toll of 21,282 is Europe’s second-highest after Italy. A strict lockdown has helped bring down the infection rate, though an average of 495 people died daily in the past week.
“There were very hard days, with many (patient) transfers,” said Santiago Albadalejos, ambulance technician on the same unit. “But we’re trained for emergencies, to withstand extreme situations.”
At the peak of the outbreak, Albadalejos’ team handled up to eight transfers a day – sometimes shuttling intubated patients between intensive care units, or moving elderly people whose nursing homes had become vectors for the infection.
For these specialised medics, minimising risk is paramount, meaning each transfer takes two to three hours.
“We deploy higher protection than others because the patients we handle present intense symptoms and are more contagious,” Albadalejos said. “Transfers are slow, and very meticulous.”
The Summa teams work 24-hour shifts and rely on one another to stay safe, taping up seams between shoe covers and suits and disinfecting each other.
A coordinator accompanies them everywhere, monitoring their safety and ensuring they stick to protocols for gearing up and removing PPE.
“It’s true that when you get home, you think ‘Another day. Yet another day. Mother of God,” said Albadalejos. “But it seems we’re getting better, and I ask people for precaution and patience.”
When fully suited, Dr Fernandez can only hear by orienting the bell of her stethoscope towards the sound, while double-layered gloves mean her coworkers struggle to feel for veins.
But, despite her eardrums hurting from the stethoscope’s constant pressure and her vision being impaired by a slipping face mask, falling hood, and steamy visor, Dr Fernandez says PPE is the best way to avoid spreading the virus.
Freed of the knee-high plastic shoe covers, head-to-toe overalls, face mask, plastic hood, goggles and face shield, Dr Fernandez smiled.
“It’s exhausting to breathe in your own air all day, and I do feel more tired than usual by 9 a.m.,” she said, referring to the end of a 24-hour shift.
But a few hours earlier, when Spaniards applauded medical staff, Dr Fernandez joined in, saying that people staying home deserved as much recognition as herself and her colleagues.
“I clap for the children, who are behaving so well. I clap for the collaboration of all of us.”