Italian health-care professional with face imprinted by mask

The Visible Exhaustion of Doctors and Nurses Fighting the Coronavirus

Documenting the marks the pandemic is leaving on medical professionals in Italy

In early March, as coronavirus cases multiplied in Pesaro, a small city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, new restrictions on daily activity were put in place to try to stop the spread of the virus. Alberto Giuliani, a photographer born in Pesaro, says that at first, people made jokes about the new reality.

Last week, Giuliani photographed the doctors and nurses who are treating dozens of coronavirus patients at Pesaro’s San Salvatore hospital. He was not psychologically ready, he told me, for what he saw there. Two floors of the hospital had been entirely transformed into critical-care units; patients on the second floor were unconscious. Giuliani decided to set up his camera on that floor, hoping that the air would be “cleaner” with the patients breathing into ventilators. A nurse cried in the hallway. “They do what they usually do, but they know it doesn’t help,” Giuliani said. “But they keep doing that because it’s the only thing they can do. It’s very heavy to carry.”

From left: Francesca Ruggeri, an ICU nurse; Silvia Ligi, an anesthesiologist; and Federico Paolin, an intensive-care doctor and anesthesiologist

During their shifts, which can run up to 12 hours, these doctors and nurses must be fully covered in protective equipment, which they cannot remove for even so much as a glass of water or a bathroom break. When they finish their shift and remove their mask, they bear deep imprints—physical and emotional—of their efforts to ease the crisis.

Margherita Lambertini, a first-aid surgeon (left), and Silvia Giulianelli, an ICU nurse

From left: Annalisa Silvestri, an anesthesiologist; Roberto Rossi, an anesthesiologist; and Martina Turiani, an ICU nurse

One of the doctors Giuliani photographed, Annalisa Silvestri, told me she hadn’t taken a day off in weeks. She cries every night when she comes home, she said, and has trouble sleeping through the night. The day before we spoke, she had intubated the father of a friend.

Gaia Onisin (left) and Federico Neri, nurse anesthetists
From left: Francesco Masetti, an anesthesiologist; Giulio Mensi, an anesthesiologist; and Serena Perez, an ICU nurse

Francesca Palumbo (left) and Laura Zonghetti, ICU nurses

“We are exhausted physically and emotionally but we must go on,” Silvestri wrote in an email after we got off the phone. “People call us heroes but we don’t feel [like] heroes, we are medical doctors trying our best to do the right thing for our patients. We are here to save everybody but as time passes we have understood that this is not possible due to the high number of cases and the lack of equipment. This realization makes us feel powerless.”

On Friday, a former colleague of Silvestri’s died in the San Salvatore ICU. He was a retired doctor who had been working in a private clinic. He specialized in respiratory medicine.

Annalisa Silvestri