|Nurse Pasqualina Conte takes a break during her shift in the emergency COVID-19 ward at the San Carlo Hospital in Milan, Italy at 3.55pm on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)|
By ANTONIO CALANNI and FRANCES D'EMILIO
— Every evening, when Pasqualina Conte returns home from a draining day as a nurse in a Milan emergency room for coronavirus patients, she longs to hold her 9-year-old son, Andrea. But for 50 days and counting, the two have not hugged.
At sunrise, Conte has the breakfast table set. Barely an hour later, she will be slipping on her protective gear at San Carlo Hospital, one of the medical facilities at the epicenter of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak in Lombardy. Schools are closed, so she drops Andrea off on her way to work at a friend’s.
Andrea’s father left them when he was 3 months old, she says. At the outbreak intensified, Conte — in a state of panic — wanted to send Andrea to his grandparents in Italy’s south. But by the time the thought occurred to her, lockdown rules forbade such travel.
Some 30 nurses in Italy who contracted COVID-19 have died, according to an Italian nursing association. Conte wears a surgical mask at home, taking it off practically just to eat and sleep.
Her day is packed: Patients to examine. Swab tests to administer. A video call from an isolated patient’s daughter. Some eight hours later, Conte slumps on a bench, then wipes away tears.
Later, she will sit at the edge of her bed at home and explain what made her cry to an Associated Press photographer who documented her day. Conte recalls how only she was able to adjust one patient’s pillows just right to make it easier for her lungs to do their work. Eventually, the woman needed to be connected to a respirator. Conte says the woman told her she didn’t fear being sedated because, she said, “When I wake up, I’ll find you.” But recalling a doctor’s grim assessment of her patient’s chances, Conte chokes back tears: “She won’t wake up.”