AP Photos: Italy’s front-line medical heroes, 8 months later

From top, left to right, intermediate care technician Claudia Accardo, nurse Daniele Rondinella, oncologist Alessandro D'Aveni, immunologist Marta Catoni, intake staff Laura Orsini, nurse Daniela Turno, head surgeon Gabriele Tomasoni, head nurse Mirco Perruzza, nurse Francesco Tarantini, head surgeon Sebastiano Petracca, nurse Martina Papponetti, nurse Lucia Perolari, electrophysiologist Luca Tarantino, nurse Adriano Rodriguez, nurse Ana Travezano, nurse Michela Pagati, pose for a portrait in Brescia, Bergamo and Rome, from Nov. 23 through Dec. 4, 2020.
FILE - In this Friday, March 27, 2020 file photo, from top, left to right, intermediate care technician Claudia Accardo, nurse Daniele Rondinella, oncologist Alessandro D'Aveni, immunologist Marta Catoni, intake staff Laura Orsini, nurse Daniela Turno, head surgeon Gabriele Tomasoni, head nurse Mirco Perruzza, nurse Francesco Tarantini, head surgeon Sebastiano Petracca, nurse Martina Papponetti, nurse Lucia Perolari, electrophysiologist Luca Tarantino, nurse Adriano Rodriguez, nurse Ana Travezano, and nurse Michela Pagati, pose for a portrait in Brescia, Bergamo and Rome.
Intermediate care technician Claudia Accardo poses for a portrait at her hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. "In these 8 months I realized how silly man can be. We health professionals risk our life every day in the ICUs and there are people who speak of conspiracy! Don't call us heroes, protect yourself and help us not to die because of you. Now we all have somebody in our close circle who's got it. And the circle shrinks every day. The best thank you from you would be not to fall in the trench where we are fighting this battle for you. It was a surprise for me to se my portraits everywhere. I got many calls from friends and colleagues complimenting me and encouraging me and that made me realize I was doing something important not only for the patients but also for them".
Nurse Daniele Rondinella poses for a portrait at his hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and in Rome on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. "On my first 'covid' day in the ICU, after wearing the protective gear for hours that I was not used to, I was going to faint. I had to look outside, through a closed window to keep myself together. The same happened to many of us. I like so much these portraits. You guys have made me feel part of a big team."
Oncologist Alessandro D'Aveni poses for a portrait at his hospital Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. "When his conditions deteriorated I had to meet the wife of a young man, a person with whom life had been cruel even before the Covid. He was practically blind and walked with difficulty due to complications from diabetes. I will never forget the loving and desperate eyes of that woman and the way she thanked me. Those portraits are a small window over the fear, the anguish, and the frustration I was living that very day for all to see".
Immunologist Marta Catoni poses for a portrait at her hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and at the San Camillo Hospital on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. "As an immunologist I never thought possible that in my life I would have seen something like this here. Every time I tell patients they can go home I see in their eyes the reason why I'm a doctor. "I love these portraits, now that I work in a different hospital they bring back such memories from those days".
Hospital intake staff Laura Orsini poses for a portrait at her hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and in Rome on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. "This virus has instilled our lives with terror, from the beginning. But I have hope. Hope that one day I'll be able to tell my children I was there and lived it through. These portraits will be there as testimony of this hope".
Nurse Daniela Turno poses for a portrait at her hospital Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. " What we are living through is like a tattoo. It will remain forever ".
ICU head surgeon Gabriele Tomasoni poses for a portrait at his hospital Spedali Civili di Brescia in Brescia, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. "They sent me a video of a patient returning home after months of hospitalization and 95 days of intensive care. A grandson was seen jumping around his 65-year-old grandfather in disbelief and happy to see him back home. Our work also serves this purpose. I believe that photography manages to more truthfully express the reality we have experienced. Thanks for your professionalism".
Head nurse Mirco Perruzza poses for a portrait at his hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. "I always carry with me the drawings that my little daughter does for me. It's her way to encourage me, I can feel that. Especially in bad days in the ICU. I recall the exact moment when you took my picture. It was the end of the day, a though day, but we were charged, hopeful, ready for everything. Today's different, we know better what we have to deal with, but we are tired and don't feel the support of the people as before".
Nurse Francesco Tarantini poses for a portrait at his hospital Spedali Civili di Brescia in Brescia, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and in Milan on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. "I can't forget the eyes of an ICU patient, Claudio, who I helped make a video call to his family, first and last, a few days before he died. When I see these portraits I can't help but smiling if I think of some Cuban friends who were praying for our souls because they thought we had died".
ICU head surgeon Sebastiano Petracca poses for a portrait at his hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. "Many times I feel powerless, our knowledge reveals to be useless and all you can do is just looking at somebody dying in the turn of a few hours. These photos really portrayed our feelings. A nurse got called by her sister, who had seen the portraits published in their native in Ucraine. She was in sorrow for the sudden death of her sister's colleagues in Italy. Fortunately we are all alive".
Nurse Martina Papponetti poses for a portrait at her hospital Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. "Memories from these 8 months just pile up. Handwriting on the back of a photograph I deliver to a patient 'we are with you, come on mom' she signals to get physically closer, her caress on my hand, a tear on her face. I leave the room, and stop outside the closed door. No one can make it alone. You learn to have (apparently) courage for two and to convey it with gestures and attention. You learn to rely on hope beyond science, to forgive yourself for promises made that could not be kept. You learn the value of a smile and of a hospital discharge, which until a few months earlier were obvious. Those portraits freeze a moment nobody wanted to associate memories with. Then came the gratifications, the messages of solidarity and strength from anywhere in the world and in any language. Banners along the hospital walls ... perhaps today we too should be thanking whoever did it, because it made us feel less alone.
Nurse Lucia Perolari poses for a portrait at her hospital Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.
Electrophysiologist Luca Tarantino poses for a portrait at his hospital Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. " I had to tell the son that his father had passed away. The greatest pain was when, a moment before, he informed me of the death of his mother too. Those March portraits tell me of a moment that lasted months and that I hope will never come back."
Nurse Adriano Rodriguez poses for a portrait at his hospital Casalpalocco ICC in Rome, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and in Rome on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020. "My mother is an anesthesiologist in Cuba, She used to work long hours, and some days she would come to pick me up at school and bring me along with her back to the operation room before going home. Italy accepted me many years ago and now as a Cuban Italian citizen, I have a chance to give something back.
Nurse Ana Travezano poses for a portrait at her hospital Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. "The pandemic confirmed to me the value of my profession that I would choose again I rediscovered the true value of life, that pathologies are unexpected, and that solidarity is a common value. Those portraits show the courage that never gives up.
Nurse Michela Pagati poses for a portrait at her hospital Spedali Civili di Brescia in Brescia, northern Italy, on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the file photo at right, and on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. "I will never forget the voice of the patients that I have been able to disconnect from the ventilators who, as their conditions improved, could call their families for the first time". Asked about the portraits taken in March Pagati says: "They have given to me an anonymous notoriety that I love".
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Eight months later, they allow themselves a faint, forced smile. The tired terror in their eyes has faded. They look chic in makeup or a jaunty handkerchief tucked into a jacket pocket.

But for the doctors and nurses who have been on the front lines of Italy’s coronavirus battle since the start, the passage of time has taken a toll. They have seen so much suffering and death and have suffered themselves: From fear of infection, isolation from their families, anger at COVID-19 skeptics and the overwhelming sense of being powerless before a vicious virus.

The Associated Press went back to photograph the 16 health care workers whose portraits, taken on the single deadliest day of Italy’s first wave of infection, came to epitomize the sacrifice of the world’s medical personnel during the pandemic.

Those March 27 portraits were raw and haunting. Each was taken in front of identical green surgical drapes at hospitals in Bergamo, Brescia and Rome, and some of the subjects were almost unrecognizable behind their scrubs, protective sheaths and face shields. Photographed during breaks or at the end of their shifts, they were exhausted and afraid and their cheekbones were rubbed raw from their masks and goggles.

Today, posing in street clothes and their hair freed from surgical hairnets, they look like your fashionable neighbor or cousin, and their personalities come through despite the lingering tension. The beards have gotten a bit fuller, some a bit whiter, but the masks remain. The fear in their eyes on March 27 seems to have given way to wisdom-gained resignation that this is how it will be.

A 10-week national lockdown from March to May eventually tamed the virus in Italy and emptied intensive care units over the summer. But the country is now in the throes of a violent second wave, and is once again leading Europe in the gruesome death count.

“The sense of impotence is enormous,” said Dr. Sebastiano Petracca, an anesthesiologist and medical chief at Rome’s Casalpalocco Hospital. “With some patients we don’t have the weapons: Everything we do, that we know how to do, is useless.”

“You have to just stay there and watch.”

Sometimes, that sense of powerlessness is compounded by outrage and bitterness that their efforts in the first wave were in vain. Infections nationwide now number 1.8 million. Some 80,000 are among health care workers. Two hundred and fifty-five doctors have died.

“We health professionals risk our life every day in the ICUs and there are people who speak of conspiracy,” said an indignant intermediate care technician, Claudia Accardo. “Don’t call us heroes. Protect yourself and help us not die because of you.”

At the same time, over these eight months there have been moments of joy and a sense of common purpose, even if the original outpouring of solidarity from the general public has waned.

Many of the 16 say they have come to realize just how important a touch or caress can be, even through two layers of latex gloves, for people wrenched away from their loved ones, heaving for air and terrified they might die.

Dr. Gabriele Tomasoni, head of the ICU at the Civic Hospital in Brescia, recalled a video he received from the family of a patient who had been in the hospital for months, and the ICU for 95 days, before he finally healed.

“You could see one of the grandchildren jumping around this 65-year-old nonno, incredulous and so happy to see him back home,” Tomasoni said. “This is what our work is for.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like their work will ease up anytime soon. Italy this weekend overtook Britain to lead Europe with the most official COVID-19 deaths, reporting more than 64,000 victims, even as its daily new infections begin to decline after the second peak. Virologists fear a third resurgence — or a drawn-out second one — is just around the corner as a result of family get-togethers over Christmas and the worst of the winter flu season.

The 16 will be on the job, even as they wish prudence would replace the ignorance, or selfish arrogance, of those who won’t do simple things to protect themselves and others.

“Christmas I will be here. Just like I had Easter here, just like August here, just like every day,” Petracca said as his eyes began to well up. “Vacation? I haven’t had any vacation since March 18.”

“I could use one.”

___

Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome. AP visual journalists Trisha Thomas and Luigi Navarro contributed.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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