Moving out of his home and washing his face with alcohol: How an Italian surgeon is surviving the pandemic

Giuseppe La Gumina, a robotic surgeon in the south of Italy, has had his life twisted around since the beginning of the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — Every day, after performing emergency surgery for more than eight hours, Giuseppe La Gumina travels to an isolated apartment 25 miles from his family home, and rubs his face, hands and body with alcohol before entering his new temporary residence.

La Gumina performs minimally invasive abdominal robotic surgery at the public hospital Ospedale Civile Ferrari Castrovillari Cosenza, in the southernmost region of Calabria, treating and performing surgery even on patients who have tested positive for coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“Before coronavirus, I lived with my wife and two children”

Because personal protective equipment was not readily available for medical staff at the hospital, La Gumina, 39, decided to move into a remote apartment separate from his family in early March when the first cases appeared.

La Gumina has stayed away from his wife and two children for over two months, fearing he could pass the virus onto them. The only ways he interacts with his family, he said, is via Skype on the weekends or late at night if he isn’t working. 

“When I left home, my 2-year-old little princess gave me a drawing made by her, where you see mom’s hand, her hand and that of her little brother, who is only 6 months old,” La Gumina recalls. “I don’t know [when I’ll be able to return home.] It depends on my hospital situation, patients with coronavirus and many factors I’ll be considering, but I don’t know.”

“Every day I looked at that drawing in moments of sadness and I knew that, despite the risks, despite the work, despite all the world, they trust me, they believe in me and therefore, for this reason, I had to do my job in the best way to save lives, to save patients and to ultimately come back home to my family, my world!”

Even now, when La Gumina arrives at his lonely apartment from the hospital, he follows a meticulous routine to make sure he doesn’t contaminate anything. After taking off his mask, gloves, shoes and clothing at the entrance of his apartment, La Gumina washes his face, neck, hands and any other exposed skin with an alcohol-based lotion. Only then, he fully enters the apartment, takes a shower and puts on clean clothes, leaving his work clothes aside to wash separately with hot water. 

“I believe the coronavirus will go on for many more months, so I’m afraid,” La Gumina said. “I’m afraid because there is nothing to prevent the symptoms or having more people get infected, so I’m afraid this will go on for six months or more.”

Worldwide, doctors, nurses and other staffers on the front line have come home to find notes from neighbors or landlords asking them to move out of the building in fear they will bring back the virus and infect the residents.

At the beginning of May, after two weeks since his last contact with a COVID-19 patient and after testing negative, La Gumina was finally able to visit and see his family at home again. He wore a mask at all times and, though it was exciting to see them face to face again, he said, “it was terrible not being able to give them a hug.”

La Gumina continues to live in his secluded apartment alone without a clear timeline for when he will be back with his family. He said seeing his family was “an immense emotion, a close embrace to the heart at the bottom of my soul.”

“Every day, every shift, every surgery, I and all my colleagues live with fear because we are constantly exposed to the risk of contagion without having the certainty or denial of being contaminated.”

Relaxing confinement measures across the country

Leading other European countries, Italy has started lifting its aggressive two-month-long national lockdown, allowing citizens to go back to work, visit family members and go for runs outside the original 200 meter perimeter around the person’s house. While for some, this is the light at the end of the tunnel, for doctors and nurses, confinement won’t come to its end that easily as new cases continue to be confirmed every day. 

La Gumina’s hospital remains on high alert despite the decrease of cases nationally. As of May 11, the total number of confirmed cases was more than 82,000, a decrease of 836, according to data from the Italian Civil Protection Department, which submits daily reports on the escalation of confirmed cases. Compared to Sunday, there were almost 800 new cases of infected people, bringing the total up to 219,814.

“I believe that phase two arrived too early, unfortunately the Italian has not acquired full awareness of the great risk [of going outside,]” he said. “I fear there may be a new wave triggered, especially, by asymptomatic positive patients.”

As the threat of new infections remains, La Gumina has seen his schedule heavily affected: Before the pandemic, he used to work six to eight hours per day and had weekends off. Now, La Gumina works seven days a week for, sometimes, more than eight hours during the night shift.

The biggest challenge for him and the rest of the medical staff at the public hospital, La Gumina said, continues to be the lack of personal protective gear, or PPE, as the majority of it goes to hospitals in the north side of the country, where the outbreak was bigger. But because the closest COVID-19 specialized center is out of reach for many patients, La Gumina’s hospital has been treating confirmed cases since February.

“Our instruments aren’t enough to treat COVID-19 patients,” he said. “I think in all of Italy, in all of Europe maybe, we don’t have adequate PPE to treat this type of patient, because we don’t have enough gloves, enough masks, enough suits. It’s very difficult to work.”

In Calabria, the number of confirmed cases rose quickly. Within the first two weeks since the first detected case on February 28, Calabria’s cases went up to almost 40. As of Monday, there were 568 cases in the region, 400 of which were in Cosenza.

In order to protect himself as much as possible from being constantly exposed to the new virus, La Gumina felt forced to buy his own protective gear, including surgical masks, sanitary gloves, disposable gowns, and glasses.

“I bought all the equipment by myself because the hospital didn’t give any protections. This is our public health: we don’t have the basic instruments to work in situations like this one,” La Gumina said. 

Most of La Gumina’s colleagues also had to buy their own PPE, he said.

“This is crazy, it’s just crazy.”

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