Vincenzo G Menditto is a doctor in the Department of Internal and Emergency medicine at Ospedali Riuniti di Ancona, Ancona, Italy
I’m Italian. I’m a doctor. I’m an Italian doctor. This means that many people have seen me as a potential carrier of SARS-Cov-2.
Today in Italy, 124527 cases of SARS-Cov19 have so far been reported, with 14860 deaths and 12681 positive cases among health workers (data released by the Italian National Institute of Health, Istituto Superiore di Sanità on 6th April, 2020). This is hard to say but, especially during the very first phase of this pandemic in Italy, I felt like an ‘untore’ (anointer).
During the plague in Milan in 1630, the term anointer was used to refer to people who were suspected of propagating contagion through the contamination of people and objects with poisonous ointments. In Italy, with its long history of epidemics, the relationship between society, contagion and anointers has remained strong, mysterious and unresolved throughout the centuries. Manzoni’s “History of the Column of Infamy” recounts the quest to find Patient Zero ante litteram; Gian Giacomo Mora, a barber (and therefore, in those days, also a surgeon) is sentenced to death following his conviction for being an anointer, and the said column of infamy is erected on the site of his death for posterity. In Manzoni’s story the end of the plague comes with a liberating rainstorm.
In 2015, on the day he was discharged from the Spallanzani Hospital, Dr. Fabrizio Pulvirenti, a volunteer doctor who contracted Ebola whilst working for the NGO Emergency, stated “I don’t think I’m a hero, but I know I’m definitely not an anointer; I’m just a soldier who was injured in the battle against a ruthless enemy”.
I am writing this because I am afraid that what happened to me, but not only to me, will also happen to you. I fear you will also feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am afraid you will also feel this anointer/hero duality. Keep your head high when you experience the former so as to better appreciate the latter. During this particularly arid winter in Italy, there was an initial phase where I was sometimes forbidden from entering shops or doing sport as I was considered potentially contagious (“Am I part of the disease?”). However, in the space of a few days, as the number of cases, deaths and positive swab tests soared among health workers along with the dramatically increasing workload in Italian hospitals, I saw a change in the collective consciousness. The first few text messages of encouragement started to arrive and gradually became more and more numerous, together with donations from various associations and companies in favour of my department. At noon on 14th March, there was a nationwide flash mob in which everyone applauded doctors and nurses. On 25th March, the Still I Rise association requested health workers be awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace prize (“Am I part of the cure?”).
We Italian doctors, mindful of our whole history, are locked between our personal fears, for our loved ones as well as our patients, and exhaustion. We are anxiety-ridden about the shortage of masks and ventilators and, between a series of decree laws and hospital directives, await this plague’s rainstorm.