Hugs to keep fear at bay in the ICU

Blanca and María José.
Blanca and María José. / SUR
  • A nurse at the Clínico hospital, where a patient's breathing tube has just been removed for the first time: "Our wish to save lives is greater than our fear of catching the virus"

After another brutal working day, a sense of humour is the only escape valve for the staff at the Intensive Care unit (ICU) at the Virgen de la Victoria university hospital in Malaga. "We've done seven things wrong," admits María José, referring to the protocol to prevent contagion. "I think it is 14, actually" a colleague replies. And they laugh.

"After 12 hours on duty, you pick a pen up when it falls on the floor, you touch your face with your glove, leave your glasses on the table... they are things you do without realising," she says. Nobody can maintain their concentration for so long at a time. Not even these nurses.

"We're not heroes," says María Jose, who has over 30 years' experience. "We're just normal people with ordinary salaries, working because it's our vocation, and it is satisfying to cure somebody, to see patients return to their normal lives". Coronavirus is testing their resolve, but they know that they will win the fight against it, despite the unprecedented crisis. "Our wish to save lives is greater than our fear of catching it," she says.

She has two teenage children, however, and is concerned about them. She kisses them on the back "because they don't touch themselves there" and uses a different bathroom, but she is well aware that this is a cruel virus. "The emotional aspect is the hardest. People are suffering on their own and dying alone. Nobody sees them except us, and that's terrible for their families," she says.

The heart of a hospital

In the ICU. life hangs on a thread. It is the heart of a hospital, the most delicate department, but at the same time inhospitable and hi-tech. With no visits from relatives allowed, it loses vitality. "We always encourage relatives to talk to the patients and be affectionate to them even though they are not conscious, but with coronavirus that's not possible because they have to be completely isolated," says María José. The staff try to spend time with the patients, even though it doubles their workload. "We try to organise videocalls, print photos to put on their beds and pass on messages of support to them. We need to be smarter than the virus, and overcome the sense of dehumanisation it brings," she says.

María José and her colleague Blanca have worked together in the ICU for over 12 years. They say the greatest joy in recent weeks was on Tuesday, when they were able to remove the breathing tube from a patient with coronavirus. There were hugs, laughter, applause and tears of joy. Juan, who is 57, was admitted on 18 March. As with the other patients, the nursing team had checked his medication every day, taken his blood pressure and his temperature and made sure the catheters didn't come out when he was being washed or changed position, because part of the treatment is to place patients face down so the lungs work better.

All 18 beds in this ICU are occupied. María José says patients arrived gradually at first, and it was only a few days ago that they really realised what they were up against. They have "just enough" PPE and no shortage of medication. So far, none of the staff has been infected. Here, the virus will only find enemies.