The first week to ten days was like being in the middle of a war zone. We lacked the necessary equipment and facilities for Covid-19 patients. The beds were full, so were the trolleys and chairs, we had patients having to be attended on the floor,” says Lucía Sesma Ventura, who was born and raised in Palma and is now on the front line fighting the coronavirus in the first hospital in Madrid which went into 100 per cent mode as soon as the virus hit the capital.
Lucía was educated at the Liceo Francés de Palma before training as a nurse in Madrid at the University of San Rafael-Nebrija. She graduated last June and in February began a masters in accident and emergency and intensive care, only to have her course postponed six weeks later and be parachuted onto the front line.
Throughout her university studies, Lucía had been working part time for the Madrid health service and in the private sector, so was one of the first called to provide extra support and be given a full-time position by the Madrid health service, which needed all the medical personnel it could find after years of cuts by former Partido Popular regional administrations.
"It was a baptism of fire. We were the first 100 per cent Covid-19 hospital. We cleared out all available areas to make as much space as possible for patients suffering from the virus. I was already working at the hospital in A&E and the staff had been monitoring developments in China and then Italy as it arrived in Europe. We were all talking about it and had a pretty good idea that it was going to hit Spain sooner or later. It was just a matter of time before something was going to happen. But we weren’t getting any clear information from the health service bosses, and then the virus all of a sudden overwhelmed Madrid. It was chaotic to say the least.
"Alongside me are colleagues who have over 30 years experience in the health service and not only had they never experienced anything on this scale, they had never been required to respond to something so vicious which we knew hardly anything about and with so little resources.
"From day one, things were changing every hour. We weren’t only learning on the job but constantly having to respond to an ever-changing and worsening crisis while adapting and making the most of what medical materials, equipment and medication we had. We had the hygiene protocol to follow, but for the first few weeks it was extremely tough because we didn’t have the proper PPE. It was four weeks before we received the first official EPI (personal protection equipment) garments.
"Up until then, we were having to take scrubs and other protective items home to wash them and recycle, something normally unheard of. The masks and goggles were not suitable and they left huge marks on our faces - many were too small, but we just had to battle on. Rotas and work schedules were constantly changing. I was usually on four nights a week and two afternoons, but the hospital was at triple capacity, plus colleagues were coming down with the virus as well. So we were stretched to the limit covering for those given a few days off before returning for duty.
"There has not been any major testing of medical staff for the simple reason the health services can’t afford to have large numbers of staff off sick, so they’d rather not know who has the virus or not. If anyone was showing mild systems, it was a case of two days at home. To have a test you had to ask for it. I haven’t. I’m living alone so I’m only coming into contact with my colleagues and patients. I haven’t seen my family since the lockdown and I obviously miss them all a great deal, just as I do Majorca. It’s my home and I can’t wait to get a break and return to Palma.
"In the meantime the battle goes on. The past few weeks have not been as drastic as it was at the outbreak. The number of infected patients is dropping and part of the hospital, accident and emergency for example, has been partly reopened to care for non-Covid cases. But now we have mixed patients on the same floor, many of whom are coming in from care homes and are arriving in poor physical and medical condition, so the risk to them is very high. Time will tell while we carry on treating Covid-19 cases.
"We work in teams of two. One in an EPI suit and the other 'clean'. For example, when I am hands on with Covid-19 patients and need blood tests taken or medicine administered, I have to call for my 'clean' assistant and they spend as little time as possible by my side as we go from one patient to another. At the peak, we were working on overdrive, automatic. When we were short of oxygen, we were having to source supplies from everywhere and some of the tanks only held enough for an hour. Patients would be running out while we were attending others, so it was a constant cycle. It was extremely demanding, still is.
"It’s difficult to sleep at night, virtually impossible to switch off and there’s always that doubt in your mind. Because everyone is working at such breakneck speed fighting to save lives, you are always questioning yourself. Did I do the right thing today? What about that patient? Because this virus is so new and unnatural, no one is 100 per cent sure how to fight it. It not only attacks the lungs but vital organs and the blood flow as well. I’ve seen so many admitted only never to have left, while many others have eventually gone home. It’s a frightful roller coaster ride and it’s not over yet."