Doctors remember the noise of residents “who were struggling to breathe on the morning of March 18, 2020 when the coronavirus first arrived at the San Camilo nursing home in Madrid.”
“They called from the fourth floor because a woman got sick. The stridor (breathing sound) was so loud that it could be heard from outside,” said Lourdes Iglesias, a doctor at the San Camilo residence.
“We were starting to get to her when I got a call from the third floor. Then another on the fourth floor. My heart sank. I said: God, this is going so fast,” he added.
Then madness: residents had to stay in their rooms as long as possible as the daily activity of the residence was completely disrupted.
The great hall that used to host amateur plays was turned into a COVID-19 pavilion where residents fought for their lives, cared for by staff in full protective gear.
“There were two exits here. The gym, which later became a recovery and rehabilitation room, or the chapel, where family members had the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones,” said another San Camilo staff member.
The chapel benches were replaced by beds of dying people, so they could spend some time with their families, even if they had to wear full personal protective equipment.
“In hospitals they died alone. Here they have always died with someone by their side. And that makes a big difference, ”Iglesias said.
Thirty residents lost their lives during the first wave of the virus and half of the staff were infected with COVID-19.
“We didn’t even have time to think if we were sick,” said Pablo Sastre, head of the palliative care unit. The residence, managed by the Catholic Order of Saint Camillus, was fortunate to have a full medical team and a palliative care unit.
In Madrid alone, thousands were denied transfer to hospitals and intensive care units.
At least 26,500 people have COVID-19 in Spanish nursing homes, accounting for almost half of the country’s deaths.
‘Was a present. Fall from the sky ‘
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived on January 12, just after the historic storm Filomena buried Madrid under half a meter of snow.
“It was a gift. It fell from the sky like snow. I say it was a gift from San Camilo. The vials arrived, but the team in charge of the vaccination could not do it because of the snow. Luckily we knew how to do it,” Iglesias said.
Along with Iglesias, head nurse Laura Steegmann vaccinated 280 people the next day: all residents and most of the nursing home staff.
They are now asking the authorities to allow them to do the second prick themselves, so that they can finish the process as soon as the new doses are available.
Steegmann remembers the moment when he first held the syringe in his hand.
“It was a feeling of hope, to think that everything could end. That we will no longer have to live with this permanent anxiety, ”he said.
The empty jars remained on a table, as if they were still too valuable to throw away.
Amid a third wave of coronavirus that is flooding Spanish hospitals with patients, nursing home staff are concentrating on keeping the center COVID-free until they can take the second hit.
“I was not at all comfortable with outside visitors. I wanted to lock the residence until we received the second blow, but the regional government objected. We reduced family visits to once a week, ”Iglesias said.
Shortages in vaccine deliveries could compromise its ability to deliver second doses.
Amid announcements of delivery delays, several regional governments in Spain have already halted the new vaccines to ensure that those who received the first doses can access a second.
“We hope to be able to get new vials in three or four weeks,” Iglesias added.
Even if it exceeds the prescribed 21 days between doses, authorities say it will not compromise the effectiveness of the vaccine.
A sign of hope
Although the vaccine provides residents with hope for the future, they will still have to deal with the trauma that came with a year of death and loneliness.
“This has made us more fragile. Some of the residents are very sad, no matter how much we worry, the workers try to do our best,” said José Carlos Bermejo, director of the San Camilo nursing home.
“Many of them now have very few important personal relationships, so we have a long and hard work ahead of us.”
But there are still signs of life: in the dining room the neighbors dance with the staff to the sound of Juan Luis Guerra Love bubbles.
Nuria Gimeno Rubio, 82, is eager to receive the second jab so she can see her children again.
“I’m looking forward to kissing and hugging you,” said Gimeno.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism