Living with Covid-19: Meet Norbert

Dr Kunal Patel 15 Jun 2020

In the fifth of our Living With COVID-19 series, where we learn how fellow health workers are adapting and coping with the ongoing pandemic, we hear from Norbert Pixner, based in Lombardy, Italy. Norbert is a social caregiver, teacher and fire worker who volunteered in the peak of the crisis for 5 weeks at Casa San Giuseppe, a care home, and one of our friends within our collaborative network. His views are the start of some stories you will see from Lombardy over the coming weeks. Lombardy has been one of the hardest-hit regions in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic. His words here describe how he felt and what he experienced during the peak of the crisis in Italy.

The image that will probably always remind me of this crisis is the white bottle of Candegina that I pour over the dead.

This strange-smelling liquid that I slowly pour over a person who was alive a short time before. Someone must do it. It's regulation. The green sheet that reminds me of the life-support operations becomes the death sheet here. The little reverence I can give to these people, whom I have only just got to know, becoming a fraction of a second of their lives, is to switch on a lamp that will burn here until the undertaker comes to place the dead in the coffin.

To break through the loneliness of dying, to be at the right place at the right time and to hold them inside, just holding their hands, separated by a piece of latex and singing a song to a person whose eyelids move like a pulse. To drip a few drops of water on their lips and just sit there, can make you feel helpless.

What value does life still have? Cut off from the people you knew, at least in part, when you become a guest in this nursing home. Isolated from your loved ones, of whom you have not heard anything for a number of weeks, trapped in loneliness for your own protection and accompanied only by people you meet in their white protective suits, like aliens.

Then they show up. Later, when things calm down. The questions. Did I do everything right? Feeling and disinfecting hands a hundred times a day, changing gloves on everyone. And yet, sometimes I would forget routine and ask, did I transmit the virus without meaning to, did I do everything, really everything, to protect these helpless people from me? These questions are a burden, because they carry responsibility, a lot of responsibility.

Every three hours, the phone rings. Time to change the oxygen tanks. Oxygen, the lifeblood for many of our guests, prescribed by the doctor. Every three hours I would run into the small chamber behind the house and hope the canister is already empty, otherwise you will have to come again later. The stupid gasket sometimes falls out at three o'clock in the morning and then you have to look for it between all the bottles to put it back in and connect the bottle to the system with a key. If lucky, this is followed by three hours of rest. After a few days it becomes 7 hours and then 10. The oxygen consumption goes down, it goes up.

I am just doing my job, just being there. Even if your own fears are there, that is noble and I have great respect for many of these workers, especially the women. There has been a hodgepodge of people from all over the world, who of course do their work, but do not shirk or hide behind excuses. Without the volunteers of the Red Cross, without Marco, who organized all this, this task would not have been possible. Their freshness, their dedication and their efforts did great good and was, for the guests of this house, their salvation.

Norbert Pixner
Lombardy, Italy