As the COVID-19 pandemic reached its apex in Italy, crippling the country’s health-care system, South Surrey’s Sheila Vicic, 57, boarded a medical relief plane and flew into the heart of one of the world’s most clinically burdened regions.
Vicic’s plane landed at a military base near Cremona, located in the Lombardy region of northern Italy on March 17. The day she arrived, the country reported 3,526 new cases of COVID-19 and 345 new deaths.
In contrast, when she left B.C. March 15, the province recorded only 15 new cases.
Vicic, who spoke to Peace Arch News Monday, spent nearly two months in Cremona, doing operational and administrative duties out of a 14-tent emergency relief field hospital built by Samaritan’s Purse. Vicic was one of 19 Canadians deployed to the city.
At the time, Cremona’s hospital was struggling to keep up with the influx of COVID-19 cases. When she arrived, approximately 20 per cent of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients were health-care workers.
Not realizing the gravity of the situation until she experienced it first-hand, Vicic said she was struck by how an entire city was “paralyzed by fear.”
“My fear with COVID arose when I got there and saw how paralyzed and fearful the people were around me. The town of Cremona was literally a ghost town. There were no children. The only two sounds were church bells and ambulances. It was an apocalyptic feeling,” she said.
She described the social isolation as much more stringent and vigorously enforced than in Canada, and people took the precautions seriously.
Over the course of two months, Vicic says the cloud of anxiety and fear that hung over health-care workers started to dissipate.
“It was very, very fearful. That was one of the great changes I think we saw, was that there’s still vigilance, but the fear had changed to have courage, to have hope, and even confidence that, OK, we got this. We have a plan and we’re working through it.”
At the time the field hospital was built, the Cremona Hospital wasn’t able to keep pace with the number of patients needing serious aid.
“We kind of watched their flattening of the curve… As the hospital restored their capacity to do their own thing, it’s important for us to leave because their normal is not us in their parking lot,” she said. “We started to see that they were able to handle their seriously ill. They were, a bit, starting to open some of their other services. And that’s when we knew it was a good time for us to leave.”
The relief hospital’s first patient was admitted on March 20, and the last patient was discharged on May 7. Vicic left the country May 12.
During those two months, the field hospital employed 310 people, treated 281 patients, and had 23 patients die.
Vicic, who was not on the medical side of the operation, didn’t interact with patients. She only knew of the deaths once she receive the hospital’s statistics and patient reports.
“That was the day where you breathe shallow,” she said. “I think one thing we all have taken comfort in is that even though people can’t be with their families during COVID, none of our patients died alone. They died with people holding their hands, people singing to them, praying over them, and with an iPad bringing their family into these moments as best we could.”
However, Vicic said, staff celebrated patients when they were discharged.
“Every patient that is discharged, we stand, and we clap, and we sing, and we wave. You see the triumph very easily. But when you have to deal with the people who have lost people, those are more sombre moments.”
Now back in South Surrey, Vicic agreed with the notion that she has a new perspective on the global pandemic.
British Columbia has started moving into the second phase of reopening the economy. For some there is concern that a second wave of the pandemic is on the horizon.
A return or resurgence of a virus as contagious as the novel coronavirus is imminent, health officials around the world have warned, based on other historic pandemics such as SARS in 2002, H2N2 pandemic in 1957 as well as the H1N1 influenza in 2009.
The 1918 Spanish flu, for example, returned in three separate waves, killing some 50 million people total. The second wave of the Spanish flu was more deadly than the first.
Vicic, who quoted B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s daily catchphrase of “be kind, be calm, be safe,” indicated that she has confidence in B.C’s response to the pandemic.
“I think we’re level-headed about it. I don’t think we’re fear mongering, which I think is good. People can listen to the information and not feel frightened, but feel vigilant. I prefer to think of us as vigilant and not fearful,” she said.
“As we’re entering the next phase and start to open up, I just hope that we really do, as citizens of Surrey, understand who our vulnerable people are and how am I going to care for them?”
The trip to Italy was Vicic’s seventh international deployment with Samaritan’s Purse.
In 2016-17, she worked out of the emergency field hospital in Iraq as the country waged in battle with ISIS to overtake Mosul.
She said she’s generally not afraid of working relief missions, even though in Iraq she could not only hear, but feel, exploding shells shake the ground.
“If fear was the reason you didn’t do things, then you’d miss out on life.”