Renato Coen, the foreign news editor at Sky News’ Italian sister station Sky TG24, has been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Here, he explains what it was like to learn about his diagnosed, be treated at the Sacco hospital in Milan, one of the main hospitals in Italy dealing with the pandemic, and coping with the illness. He has since recovered.
On the evening of 10 March, Sacco hospital seemed to me an endless maze.
I’m 46 years old with a fever, walking around the empty streets in a daze between the hospital pavilions in search of a building that I can’t find. The fever and cough certainly don’t help my lucidity.
Entering the emergency room, I am made to sit down immediately. A sample of my blood is taken and someone puts a swab in my nose. Then I am taken to have an X-ray of my lungs. The symptoms are alarming.
“Tonight you’ll be staying here,” they tell me.
“What? I was told that I would wait for the results at home.”
“Forget about it, you have a high fever. If all goes well you can go home tomorrow morning,” they insisted.
Anxiety sets in. Positive would mean quarantine. My wife and daughter left for Rome a few days ago.
Sky TG24, where I work, is ready to close down at a moment’s notice, triggering an emergency plan into action which would allow it to be on the air in all events.
After an hour a nurse arrives: “I have the results of the X-rays: good news, your lungs are fine!”
“On the other hand the blood tests…”
“Well, on the other hand…?”
“We’ll bring you upstairs among those who are doing well, and wait for the result of the swab tests that will arrive tomorrow morning.”
Having been moved upstairs I begin to understand what isolation means.
They put me in a room on my own, point to gloves and a mask, telling me to put them on when a health worker enters the room. They bring me food in a plastic bag, but not into the room – they leave it outside and tell me from beyond the door to open it and take it in as soon as they have left
“Good morning. You’ve tested positive”
6.30 am. I don’t know why but I’m already awake. Today something will happen. It has to. I can’t just lie around, half-dressed on a bed in an unnamed first aid room forever.
I still feel feverish and slightly short of breath. I turn on the phone which, after a few moments, starts vibrating with the arrival of a message. It’s the doctor who took my test.
“Good morning, you’ve tested positive.”
I am determined to share the news as soon as possible. I call the bosses and my friends at Sky. “Good luck guys!” I think. They try to calm me down and help and comfort me. I feel confused and need to speak to my wife.
Morning comes early in the hospital. More of my blood is taken.
Then they bring me tea. And there would have been nothing wrong with it if it weren’t just a drop of liquid in the bottom of paper plate…
Who cares anyway. In fact, I have so much more I should be worrying about.
For example, I should worry that my fever shows no sign of going down, or that the instrument to measure my blood saturation indicates too low an oxygen level. Ten minutes later I have oxygen cannulas in my nose.
At about 2pm, after a short ambulance ride, I was greeted with courtesy and smiles on the second floor of Pavilion 56. They put me in a bed in a double room and run all the necessary tests.
There is a doctor who is very reassuring. She says that I don’t have pneumonia for now, but I do have a high fever.
She takes away the oxygen and then adds: “From this evening on we will start an antiviral treatment; it will be a little heavy going but we have seen that it is quite effective”.
I turn to my roommate, who says to me: “Hell man, those pills are bombs, they destroyed me. But now I’m fine and I’m being dismissed.”
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In fact, in half an hour he goes away and I am left alone, trying to understand where I have ended up. Where am I going?
My breathing is not very good. But I’m still not too worried.
In the evening the door opens and my new roommate enters. He is in a wheelchair, attached to oxygen. They lay him on the bed next to me, while he coughs and coughs, with a dry and relentless cough. I greet him. I understand immediately that he is not well.
Around him, two health workers protected by shirts, masks, caps, and gloves place him on the bed. A nurse kindly gives him basic instructions and offers him the appropriate medicines. He thanks them. He does not have the strength to be kind, he is ill. He has double pneumonia.
My fever is starting to go up and down like a head-spinning ride on a rollercoaster. I am given three tablets of a so-called antiviral medicine that don’t take long in making their side effects felt, and paracetamol, without end, as soon as my fever exceeds 38 degrees.
I wake up in the morning in a pool of sweat because of the antipyretic [to reduce fever]. I change clothes and refresh my bed sheets as my fever rises again. The mix of antivirals gradually begins to take effect.
My stomach wrenches closed. Then I am enveloped by a sense of nausea. I feel exhausted. I lose strength despite the fact that I believe the right antibodies seem to have been found to fight the virus. I do have a little cough and I don’t breathe very well, but I also understand that pneumonia is a long way off. For now, it is not my problem.
I remember the day before, I was made to sign an informed consent before being given this drug. It’s called Kaletra.
In the morning when the doctor comes to visit on his daily rounds he asks me how I am. I try to show myself quite in good form but, of course, I can’t hide my fever.
He explains how important it is that the fever decreases. “We hope that the situation will not get worse,” he repeats, and even through his mask I can see the hint of a doubt.
Here I see that each patient is at the same time a patient and an observed species. He is at once a patient and a scientific case to study.
I listen to the dialogue between Mauro and the doctors and nurses. Treatment is being tried, but it does not bear fruit. For him, they increase the oxygen level.
The silence in this room is interrupted only by his coughs and my phone calls with my mother, wife and daughter.
She is three years old. I haven’t seen her for too many days. The video calls with her dad are to meet her needs, at least I hope so. They definitely meet mine.
“Dad, get out of bed! Enough of being lazy!” she yells upon seeing me on the phone.
“Of course, immediately my love, I was just feeling a little tired. What did you do today?”
“I am very sad because my magic wand broke. When you come to Rome, will you buy me one, a great big one?”
“Why do you speak so funny? Papa, if you talk like this I can’t understand!”
“But there is a man near me who is not very well so I cannot shout,” I try to explain.
“Go ahead speak, don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me,” Mauro interjects.
Then I get a little less inhibited. “I promise you an enormous magic wand as a reward for being such a big girl!”
My stomach wrenches in knots more and more and the fever continues to rise and fall.
Besides the fever, time is becoming my main enemy. The messages I receive have begun to accentuate that sense of nausea that envelopes me. Although I am enormously grateful to anyone who writes to me, I’m sick and tired of writing on WhatsApp about myself and my health.
The eyes of the others
As the days and hours go by, the female nurses become increasingly familiar even though I can’t see any part of their lower faces, protected as they are by masks. I can only guess their build under the uniform green lab coats, or the colour of their hair, which is tied back and protected.
But I can see their eyes well. I recognise each by their eyes. I make them out that way. The one with the sad black eyes. The one with bright, smiling eyes. The one who always seems happy but squints. The one with the reassuring look.
Then there are the men, fewer in number, but perhaps more different physically and more easily recognisable. For sure, they too, more than anything else, speak with their eyes.
Everyone, and I mean everyone who enters smiles. They all seem to have come to the understanding that when they enter these rooms they try bring the sun in with them.
The sun is missing. In fact, the window of the room doesn’t face out onto the open sky, but onto an internal corridor, from where any eventual visitors would be able to come and greet the patients, protected by windows that don’t open.
The little sunlight that reaches into our room only reflects off the glass of that corridor, which is shadowed by a very near, taller building.
In short, seeing the sky is impossible as is trying to figure out what time of day it is outside.
The “outside” for us, shut inside these rooms, are the nurses and health workers who enter.
They put themselves to doing the most unpleasant of jobs while laughing and joking. They prod Mauro into moving so they can wash what he has soiled, and always give him reason to crack a smile, or at least they try.
They talk about the beneficial effects their waterproof suits have on their skin.
“Imagine this summer what smooth and velvety skin we’ll have! Miraculous these suits, better than any Spa!”
“What smooth skin? Are you kidding? I feel like Chewbacca, that hairy character in Star Wars! We women will all be like him in a month.”
Their laughing brings a world of light to us who seem to have lost it.
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One day I am talking to Stefania, one of the nurses. I ask her how she does it; whether she is afraid in a normal working day to have such close contact with the “untouchables”, those people who you are always at risk of catching infection from.
“Anyone who starts working in an infectious disease department never wants to do anything else, but this work again,” she confides.
“It gives you too much and it’s too interesting.”
The current situation though can’t be considered normal. The huge number of people taken to hospital for this virus puts heavy pressure on all to shoulder. Normal life has become impossible, especially for those who work in hospital.
“Now it is different though -she continues – It is an emergency without end, something we have never seen before. For us it is tough, physically, of course, but also psychologically.
“When we go home we have your eyes inside us. The way you look – we have that inside us. We take that home with us every day. Don’t think it’s easy to go back to our private lives. In a sense, we never do; we always stay here with you.”
Stefania is in a hurry to leave, she shouldn’t stay in conversation in a patient’s room. She reaches out with her double rubber gloved hand to touch my arm.
If I never felt truly alone during my time in isolation, it was thanks to people like Stefania
One day Mauro, looking for comfort, or maybe frightening confirmation, stops a nurse, Angela, who had just assisted him in therapy.
“Tell me: Are many people dying?”
Angela’s eyes change and become teary.
“I’m sorry but I can’t answer this question”
“Courage!” she adds, taking off her gloves as she leaves the room.
As time passes, Mauro is unable to improve. The cure partially works, but breathing remains difficult for him.
One day a doctor comes in and announces that he will be transferred to another room, where he will use an oxygen helmet.
I say goodbye to him one afternoon as he is being wheeled away.
The ghost inside
Confinement in hospital is beginning to take its toll.
I have been in hospital for almost a week. My clinical situation is definitely improving.
It seems to me my breathing is better and the fever is coming down. Actually, it has dropped significantly. It no longer peaks beyond 39 degrees. It usually remains between between 37 and 38. I am treating myself with paracetamol.
I’m still very weak probably, because I am not eating. The Kaletra-based treatment has run its course. Together, the virus and its treatment have done a number on my sense of taste.
My stomach is just one tight jumbled knot so I can’t eat a thing. Definitively, this is what gives me the sense of exhaustion and nausea that is knocking me out.
The doctors decided to give me a five-day cycle, 10 doses in all. I have been counting them down one by one.
Psychologically it seems harder and harder to get them down, as if they were heavy bricks.
Around the time that Gianni enters, my clinical condition is certainly comforting. I feel weak and nauseous, but the fever is not high.
Gianni is 87 years old and looks worn out. He is brought in on a stretcher. He is not very present. I try to greet him but he doesn’t answer. They lay him on the bed. From that moment on I begin to hear a constant wheezing that will never abandon him.
I begin to understand that as the days go by, I am more and more psychologically stifled, that I’m running on reserve. A reserve of good mood, a reserve of fuel to burn to refresh my spirit. I’m starting to develop a clear sense of claustrophobia.
The doctors clarify the issue one morning: “We don’t discharge anyone as long as they have a fever. This is very important. When the fever passes, you will go home.”
Now I know my friend is also my enemy: that damn thermometer!
The fever eventually drops further, to below 37 degrees when I take paracetamol. But that’s not good enough.
“To you I have something to say …”
One night I fall asleep with very low fever. I don’t take any paracetamol. I wake up with 36.5 °. Every hour I look more hopefully at the thermometer.
At 10.30am the doctor repeats: “Up until yesterday evening you had a fever, I can’t let you go yet, we hope your temperature stays below 37° all day”.
A kind health worker comes in to arrange some things around Gianni. She looks at me and says: “You work on TV on the news, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well do you know who’s in the room next door?”
“My daughter. She is a nurse in orthopaedics. She was made to work without protection. She accompanied the patients to do the X-rays, to do the therapy, to get in bed. And now she is positive too”.
In the afternoon, another nurse comes in and tries to cheer me up. She too is very kind.
Then at a certain point she says to me: “You work on Sky News. I must tell you the situation here is very difficult. There are buildings full of patients, and ambulances continue to arrive. I don’t know how we are going to end up.”
I feel somehow responsible for conveying to the outside those requests for help, those simple complaints made by the people who now are working for others.
Maybe it is my roommate’s wheezing, or maybe my ever present obsession with getting out of here, but the hours seem to drag on longer and longer. My fever has almost completely gone.
Suddenly, Gianni stops wheezing, I worry – there is a disturbing silence. His position in the bed has not changed. I hope he is still breathing. I check and, in fact, he is, sleeping peacefully.
Evening comes slowly. It is now the hour when, for physiological reasons, the fever rises. I anxiously take up the thermometer with terror. But it doesn’t rise past 36.9 degrees and I haven’t even cheated!
The fever does not return and I fall asleep determined: tomorrow I will leave, I will convince them, after all I have no fever.
The next morning, I wake up with 36.4 degree temperature to my daughter shouting on the phone: “Happy Father’s Day papa; it is your day! I’m going to make you a great big chocolate cake and then when I come to Milan we’ll eat it together!”
I guess it’s Father’s Day and waking up couldn’t have been better.
The two young doctors who have graciously made the rounds come in.
“I haven’t had a fever since yesterday morning!” I triumphantly announce.
“Very well,” they answer. “If today it doesn’t come back, we’ll be sending you home tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon or evening, that is, not earlier.”
My world crumbles. I feel betrayed.
“Our protocols determine a 72-hour period without fever before we can even consider discharging a patient.”
So what do I do now? It is 10am, another 24 hours must pass before I see the doctors who decide whether to send me home or not.
How can I keep the fever from returning in these 24 hours? I decide to request some drops of Lexotan, which send me off to a cool, calm sleep.
In the afternoon I recover a little. When the nurses pass in the evening, I feel refreshed: the day has passed and I now realise the fever has truly abandoned me. I eat almost nothing though, but I do smile when I hear Gianni, in one of his rare statements, say to the nurse: “What a delight a glass of wine would be!”
In the morning of March 20, I wake up a little afraid – but still confident in my physical condition.
I have no fever and my blood saturation is fine. A nurse arrives and gives me a swab test, to see where the coronavirus infection is at after 10 days in hospital.
At 10.30am the doctors enter. They look at me and say: “We are sending you home, not now, but later this afternoon.”
“Thanks,” I smile. How great that feels to hear.
At 5pm they call me. The ambulance is ready. I dress in the heavy sweater and winter jacket I was wearing when I entered. They make me put on a hospital gown, gloves, mask. I am still a potential danger.
I enter the back of the ambulance. They point me to a seat and tell me to sit down and not touch anything.
The weather outside is mild.
After a few minutes of travel, I feel like I’m melting underneath my heavy clothing. I open a window and look out on an increasingly empty, almost ghostly Milan.
I glimpse an orderly line of customers outside a supermarket, and an avenue on the canal completely empty. The air that filters in helps little. When we arrive at my house, an emergency worker opens the door of the ambulance and notices I’ve opened the window.
“Who opened this window?”
“It was me,” I say. “Shouldn’t I have?”
“Absolutely not! I told you not to touch a thing! Do you have any idea what you have done? Where do you think you are coming from, the vegetable market?”
“I am sorry, I was dying from the heat.”
“Well, sorry isn’t good enough! “
At that point I decide to stop apologising and I walk away.
I want to relish my return home. it is empty, but still, it’s home.