The Good Samaritan — An Aya Employee’s Uncle Volunteered to Work the COVID Front Lines in Italy

July 7, 2020 | Clinician Stories

Dr. Mark Agness, the uncle of an Aya employee, gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “a good samaritan.” A Nevada City-based ER Physician, Dr. Agness volunteered to work in Cremona, Italy — a city devastated by the Coronavirus. Dr. Agness traveled with the nonprofit, Samaritan’s Purse, where he and his wife have volunteered since 2017. When he and the Samaritan team arrived, the regional hospital’s 600 beds were already filled with COVID patients. Samaritan’s Purse set up a field hospital with 68 beds, including 10 in the ICU. Dr. Agness spent a month working in the field hospital, 12 hours a night.

We interviewed Dr. Agness about his experience and wanted to share his insights with you.

How does the situation in Italy compare to other high-risk environments you’ve been in throughout your career?
“The situation in Italy was unique. The healthcare system was overwhelmed despite remarkable sacrifice and hard work by their healthcare providers. The 600-bed hospital in Cremona had stopped doing anything even vaguely ‘routine’ and had been transformed into a respiratory care unit with 500 patients. The ICU, recovery room, OR and step-down units were all now ventilator wards.

The streets were empty due to mandatory quarantine and eerily silent other than the round-the-clock ambulances. This was not something I’d ever seen in the developed world. Yet through this, the compassion and empathy for patients and sense of duty never changed for us or the Italians. There was remarkable camaraderie that allowed us to support each other and work long, hard hours.”

What was the hardest part of your experience in Italy?
“There were many challenging aspects. I worked in a tent supported by a generator and propane heaters supporting up to ten ventilated patients. It was busy and the patients were very sick. Perhaps the hardest part was understanding the unique nature of this situation for the patients and families.

The patients awoke after being intubated and sedated at the regional medical center in a very foreign environment, surrounded by people wearing masks and shields who spoke no Italian. Those with cognitive abilities came to understand this with the help of the interpreters. Those without were frightened and disoriented.

No visitors were allowed. When a patient died, they died away from family and loved ones. That was hard. Trying to provide a loving environment for our patients where they were comforted, even under dire circumstances, was taxing emotionally. It took a toll on our nurses and interpreters alike. It definitely took its toll on me.”

What was your most memorable moment?
“The one that stands out was celebrating Easter in our respiratory care unit. We were at shift change in the early morning hours. It was cold, but clear. I was coming out of the ICU after a night shift and the day shift was in the ‘clean zone.’ Two groups, one in full PPE, and one in masks assembled on either side of the neutral zone. Additionally, ambulatory patients from both men’s and women’s wards came out to celebrate Easter and sing. We sang hymns in English and Italian. It reminded us that human bonds and beauty would not be destroyed by the pandemic; rather, they would be strengthened and refocused.”

What advice would you give to healthcare professionals who haven’t yet worked with COVID patients but are heading to crisis jobs?
“First and foremost, this is a chance to examine your heart. Why do you do what you do and why is it important to you? I think we all entered medicine to serve. COVID is an opportunity to explore the limits and unique aspects of this call. It’s humbling and frightening yet fulfilling in ways few others will ever experience.

Secondly, PPE works. You can function safely, day after day, in a hospital filled with COVID-19. My colleagues and I (100 strong) spent up to two months surrounded by the virus and remained well. Strict attention to donning, doffing, masking and handwashing will pay off. Examine yourself and embrace the challenge!”

For more information about Dr. Agness’ volunteer work abroad, read his interview with The Union.

Interested in joining the front lines yourself? Speak with a recruiter today!

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