Bordering states were already dramatically hit by the epidemic. The turn for the canton where I live was about to come. Spatial arrangements of the health care system were in place and one of the hospitals close by had been appointed as the Covid “milieu” of reference. They were desperate for human resources and I responded to the call.
The hospital was in turmoil, frenzied re-ordering was occurring all around the building. Outside new and improvised wooden-made construction were flourishing, inside new spaces to host newly admitted patients had been created. The number of patients were growing, alongside ventilators had been occupied by them.
I remember some of the patients on their arrival in the unit just before getting intubated, with thoracic muscles almost exhausted. Desperate of air their mouths were widely opened to catch any molecules left in the air and like fishes overthrown by the last wave on the shore, their eyes appeared emptied of human soul. From there onwards, of these people, of these patients, only bodies remained, bare, attached to machines that were mechanically breathing for them and in the hands and care of medical staff, particularly nurses. Patients could not breathe and interact, they were barely surviving, barely existing.
On the other hand, painstakingly, nurses were at the patient’s bed ensuring that ventilators were doing their job, pricking patients’ skin for analysis, injecting drugs, bathing them and speaking with them in a dialogue that could not be returned. Notably, I remember one of the nurse’s type of care; for any act of pricking, while moving or cleaning the patient’s body, he was asking for permission, calling patients by their name and apologizing beforehand in case he would have provoked harm or further suffering. Care, this type, intensive and intimate, was not just a matter of a few days. Patients instead remained in the Unit for more than a month and in some cases almost two.
All days unfolded more or less the same way. Sometimes machines began to alarm struggling to provide enough strength to lift the thorax while lungs collapsed. After a few weeks, some of the first patients got extubated and moved to semi-intensive care unit. There, bit a bit they restarted to utter, to eat and to breathe spontaneously. Along with them I also moved to the literal and metaphorical upper ward. It was a relief for them but also for me. On the upper floor, I encountered one of the patients that the nurse in question was providing care to. I ran downstairs to tell him that x patient, the one he looked after for weeks, now, was getting better and that his work and dedication finally gave its fruits.
I asked him if he already met the patient and if he was willing to get to know her in flesh, bones and through words.
He smiled at me and seemed happy for her. He said that he neither would meet the person nor that he was intentioned to know who the patient in real life was. His duty was there, among those bodies, among those machines and their cease-less sounds, his relentless dedication and impersonal care was among these post-human walls and there was the right place to work, to act and to feel with.
Stefano Di Gregorio is a Medical Doctor by training and PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Institute of Genève. During the first wave, March 2020, and recently, he worked at the Covid hospital in Locarno. Both experiences significantly informed his dissertation project that focuses on the “value of life” and social mechanisms of evaluation.