Coronavirus: 'Everyone dies alone': Heartbreak at Italian hospital on brink of collapse

20 March 2020, 18:49 | Updated: 21 March 2020, 10:56

The mortuary assistant beckoned for us to follow him.

We passed room after room full of coffins. At the end of a corridor he opened a door and gestured that we go inside what I could see was a church.

I didn't understand, but as we turned the corner we were confronted by more rows of coffins.

There are so many dead at the Cremona Hospital in Lombardy that they have to use the church to store the bodies before they are picked up and taken away to be cremated.

Their families haven't been able to pay their last respects or say goodbye. They can't because they are in lockdown quarantine.

It's a recurring theme now, everyone dies alone.

Time and again doctors and nurses hold back tears as they describe the anguish they feel for their patients who are dreadfully scared and lonely in their last hours.

The only care and kindness comes from the medical staff - strangers who are trying, but often failing, to save them.

It is genuinely heartbreaking covering this story and it's made worse knowing that our own families are vulnerable too. They could die alone and there is nothing I or anyone could do.

The dead in the church all came from the intensive care unit (ICU) at the hospital which is on the brink of collapse. This is what it is like when the virus overwhelms, and here in Lombardy it is overwhelming.

Dressed in protective clothes, masks and gloves we were led through deserted, eerily quiet corridors to a set of locked double doors.

Our guide, the hospital's health manager Rosario Canino, pressed a buzzer and spoke into an intercom.

The door opened and a nurse dressed head to toe in protective clothing with a plastic full-face visor over a mask opened the door and let us inside.

Rooms on both sides of a corridor stretched into the distance.

As we walked on we passed the ICU wards. All had multiple beds all filled with motionless people connected to tubes, drips and breathing equipment.

The only noise was the sound of the pumps and pinging heart monitors.

These patients are critically ill. In all probability they will never make it out of here alive. That is the stark reality facing everyone now.

The staff have no cure available to them. They are just trying to keep their patients alive.

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In one ward, five doctors and nurses worked in unison to turn a patient onto her front. She was utterly motionless. They turn the patients every 13 to 16 hours to relieve the pressure on their lungs.

Without doubt, this woman would die without their constant attention.

The patients are highly contagious. Where possible they are observed from a distance. But most of the time it isn't possible.

None of the staff take any risks. They wash and sanitise constantly. Gloves, masks, and protective clothes and outer-layers are regularly changed.

In truth, the men and women working in the ICU are exhausted.

The system is at breaking point and they are as well. But they keep going. They aren't the front line in this war, they are the only line.

"I can't say how I feel now, because it's a war, it's a disaster," Dr Leonor Tamayo told me.

"It's very dangerous, it's a disaster, it's a tsunami, and we are here 12 hours a day. Only we are going home for a few hours and come back here for the work because we are here for the patients," she said - on the verge of tears.

The first, perhaps only, bit of good news for the teams here was the news that one of their patients is recovering. We couldn't approach him, he is still too weak but he gave us a wave.

After two weeks he is getting better. However, in that two weeks not one other person on this ward has improved and many have died.

One frightening development here is that the age of the victims is getting younger - much younger. One man they treated was 36.

The doctors aren't sure why, but believe that people who are not critical are sent home and there they get worse and return to hospital in a far more vulnerable state.

The only illnesses being treated in Cremona hospital are linked to COVID-19 and it is spreading.

Dr Emanuela Catenacci showed me around her section of the ICU.

She is normally a neurosurgeon but is now working in intensive care. She asked me if she could send a message to the outside world. In a word it was "lockdown".

"Try to stop, try to stop - isolate people, stop contact in everything because otherwise the situation is, like, a tsunami, is a tsunami, when it starts to grow it's really… it explodes," she told me.

"Don't think that it is happening here and [think] it can't happen everywhere else - because it will if you don't do anything to stop it."

In Lombardy they haven't run out of hope but they are struggling with pretty much everything else.

They are waiting for the epidemic to peak. But it could be weeks, it could be much longer.