Brutal choices, loneliness, death: This is life on the frontline for Spain’s medics

Meet Sara, Regina, Sonia and Irene, healthcare workers on the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus epidemic that has brought Spain's hospitals to the brink of collapse.

Brutal choices, loneliness, death: This is life on the frontline for Spain's medics
Photos: AFP

Here they talk to AFP about what they have seen and how they are coping.

'I have to choose'

Sara Chinchilla is a 32-year-old paediatrician who works at a hospital in Mostoles near Madrid. So huge is the influx of patients that staff must prioritise who will be taken into the intensive care unit where they have the best chance of survival — namely the younger ones with no preexisting medical conditions.

“So if I've got five patients and only one bed, I have to choose who gets it,” Chinchilla says.

“People are dying who could be saved but there's no space in intensive care.”    

Her hospital is also lacking material. Though it has recently received more masks, she says, what it needs most is respirators.   

“Many more lives could be saved if we had respirators.”   

The staff too are close to breaking point because many of them have fallen sick — “each day more are going down with it”.

The hospital has been completely reorganised to take in the huge influx.    

“There are no more departments for gynaecology, paediatrics or traumatology, right now the entire hospital is treating COVID-19,” Chinchilla says.   

“There are more and more patients and fewer doctors, it can't carry on like this.”

In Spain, thousands of doctors, nurses and healthcare workers have been infected by the virus, officials say. At least three have died.


'Overwhelming loneliness'

Regina Dalmau, 48, is a cardiologist at Madrid's La Paz hospital who has been treating coronavirus patients for weeks.

“When you leave the hospital, there's a sense of real sadness. These (patients) are all alone; when they die, they die alone and when you get home, you have to digest that, you have to cry. Nobody could have imagined this.”   

Dalmau has seen some “pretty harrowing situations”, of patients living through some brutally short last moments.

“You call the family to come and say goodbye” but they can only come if they don't have symptoms and if they haven't been living with the patient over the last five days, she says.   

“They might be there for 10 minutes but they can't go near (their loved one)… There is loneliness on both sides and it is overwhelming.”    

For Dalmau, the situation is “all-out war” with the worst “yet to come”.    

What Spain is experiencing now, with the death toll soaring past 4,000 and the number of cases rising above 56,000, is just the result of “people being infected two or three weeks ago”, she says.

The authorities have “made a horrible mess of managing the crisis”, she adds.

Just days before the March 14th lockdown, people were out en masse attending football matches, visiting Madrid's ARCO contemporary art fair or taking part in mass marches for International Women's Day on March 8th.

“This virus has caused some serious blind spots,” Dalmau says. 

Masks don't last forever

Sonia Pacho is a nurse who works at Galdacano hospital near the northern city of Bilbao, a hospital which hit the headlines last week after one of its nurses became the Spain's first healthcare worker to succumb to the deadly pandemic.

“It was a real blow, you feel very powerless,” says this 48-year-old, who visits patients with mild symptoms across a wide geographical area that sometimes sees her driving more than 100 kilometres (60 miles).

She carries out tests on people of all ages, and on each visit, she has to be kitted out in fully-protective gear: gloves, a mask, goggles, a gown and plastic covers for her shoes.

And in taking it off, she has to be scrupulously careful.   

But for those working back at the hospital, such items aren't easy to get hold of, and not having protection “really limits what you can do”.   

“I have colleagues who are reusing their masks over and over again,” she sighs. “And masks don't last forever.”

At the hospital, the atmosphere is tense, she says although the staff are demonstrating a lot of solidarity and willingness to help by stepping in to help out, changing shifts  or doing extra days.

“If they called me in to help out, I would definitely go.”

Sidelined by sickness   

Irene Sanz, a paediatrician at a hospital in the northwestern city of Valladolid, has been at home with her two small children since testing positive for coronavirus on March 13th.

“I had a fever of 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) for several days, and the fever lasted for 10 days with a lot of muscular pain, exhaustion and a bit of a cough,” she said. “I was really fed up.”

Now she's recovered and is hoping that she will test negative for the virus next week.

“I want to go back to work because with all the staff falling sick, they really need more people,” says Sanz, 35.   

“But I'm also afraid about what I'm going to find when I get there.”

By AFP's Alvaro Villalobos and Michaela Cancela-Kieffer

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.