An Urgent Plea from Italy

A missive from a nurse in Milan, via a Nashville resident

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Most Nashville readers will know (the voice of) Natasha Senjanovic, the longtime All Things Considered host at WPLN, who left the station last last year to pursue other reporting opportunities. A reporter for over two decades, Senjanovic is also a former resident of Italy, so she’s had the unfortunate ability to witness the trauma that COVID-19 has wrought from friends and family who are in the country.

Senjanovic recently translated a missive from an emergency call center nurse in Lodi, and she decided to pass it along to Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, in the hopes they might take decisive statewide action to require, not encourage, social distancing. With her permission, I am sharing the letter and the translation.

Whether or not it sways any minds in the state’s administration, the horrific descriptions from Italy could sway the mind of someone you know, in Tennessee or elsewhere, and convince them to stay home. Please share with your friends and family members and, perhaps, your local elected officials who have not yet become convinced of the threats facing all of us in the weeks to come.

Dear Governor Lee and Commissioner Piercey, 

You may know me as a former host at Nashville Public Radio. But I’m also an adopted Italian: I lived in Rome for 16 years, until shortly before moving to Nashville, and my father and most of my closest friends live in Italy. 

I know the decisions before you are momentous; a balancing act between saving lives and saving the state’s economy, often one and the same thing. But the longer social distancing is encouraged rather than enforced, the greater the risk of infecting more people, and the greater the toll it will have on our medical workers and facilities. 

The consequences of COVID-19 have been dire in places, like Italy, with a unified and freely accessible health care system. What will they look like here? 

Below is my translation of a plea from an emergency call center nurse in one of Italy’s hardest-hit areas. I urge you to read it. 

Thank you,

Natasha Senjanovic

Radio producer - Writer/editor - Consultant


From Paolo Baldini, emergency call center nurse (SOREU, Lombardy region):

Do you know what’s happening in the area around the [Italian town of] Lodi, where everything began? Residents are calling 118 [Italy’s 911], where I work [in Milan].

Do you know what they ask for? They simply ask for help. They don’t demand anything. Incredibly, they don’t scream, threaten or insult us. They’re polite, they apologize for disturbing us and patiently and calmly wait for hours for someone to listen to them and, they hope, help them even over the phone.

Those of you not experiencing this won’t immediately understand why they’re so compliant and resigned. I do. I’ll try and explain it to you.

Lucia calls me. She lives in a two-story house. Lucia is 55 and lives on the top floor, quarantined with her two sons. I ask her who needs help. She says her mother, who lives below them. I ask her if she’s been in contact with other people who tested positive for coronavirus.

She begins. Her 57-year-old husband Gianni is intubated in the ICU. Her 49-year-old brother Stefano died the day before yesterday in the ICU. Not the same one her husband’s in, because there wasn’t enough room for him when he got sick. Her husband was taken away in an ambulance a week ago, he had a fever and trouble breathing.

Lucia hasn’t seen or talked to him since. Every day she waits for a phone call from ICU staff to find out if her husband is still alive and if there’s been any progress. Her voice trembles when she tells me and I don’t have the courage to interrupt her.

I don’t want to interrupt her even though I have twenty other callers waiting. It’s been this way for days and it will continue to be this way for many days, I’m sure.

Finally, she takes a breath and I can continue trying to figure out how to help her. She says she’s calling about her mother, who lives on the bottom floor of her house. She’s 88. She’s been febrile for a few days now, weak, coughing, wheezing.

Her family doctor has been taking care of her. Lucia and her mother are lucky. Their doctor isn’t sick or quarantined. In the past few days her doctor X-rayed her and brought her oxygen because for the past day she hasn’t been able to breathe. She tells me the doctor was just there and recommended her mother be taken to the hospital because he can’t help her at home anymore. She says the doctor wanted to speak to us, but after waiting on hold for an hour he had to go see another patient.

I apologize for the long wait, trying to explain that we’re literally flooded by emergency calls and we’re struggling to keep up, but she interrupts me to say: “None of you need to apologize. You’re already doing too much.”

She is consoling me. Fucking hell.

I tell her I can send an emergency vehicle to take her mother to the hospital, but that it will be a while and that I’m not sure they’ll be able to take her to the hospital in Lodi where her husband is.

She stops me. Her voice is calm, but decisive. I get ready for an argument. I’m tired and, selfishly, don’t want to talk to any more people. I’m nauseous from hearing the same stories, the same suffering, the same pain. Then I think how my shift will be over in an hour and, even more selfishly, I picture myself asleep in bed.

Instead, Lucia gives me a life lesson that two days later is firmly embedded in my mind and heart. Lucia tells me she doesn’t want to take her mother to the hospital. She explains she’s already lost one brother she couldn’t say goodbye to, whose funeral she couldn’t attend, and she hasn’t seen or talked to her husband for ten days. She says she doesn’t want her mother to die in the hospital.

She adds: “I know perfectly well that you can barely keep up with patients in the hospital and I know perfectly well that if I send my mother to the hospital you all will let her die alone because you won’t have time to treat her.”

She says it without bitterness but with an awareness that freezes my blood. I stay silent because she’s absolutely right but I can’t tell her that. She understands my silence and continues: “I just want someone to tell me that I’m doing the right thing and to allow me let her die with dignity at home without suffering.”

I’ll stop here. I won’t tell you any more. Except that Lucia’s mother died at home an hour later. Maybe one day I’ll go to Lucia’s house, to give her a hug and tell her she did the right thing. Because if I were a father I’d want a daughter like her.

Lucia is just one drop. None of you have any idea the enormous ocean of sickness, suffering and pain this pandemic is creating. And don’t delude yourselves that it can happen to others, but not to you.

When we beg you to stay home and tell you we’re collapsing, we’re not joking. There aren’t any more beds in the hospitals for young people even. We medical professionals are getting sick and the epidemic keeps spreading

Lodi and Codogno are small towns. Have you seen today’s photo of the truck taking caskets away from Bergamo? Do you know how big Milan’s population is? Milan’s hospitals are already full of patients. But none of those patients live in Milan. Guess where they’re from? Do the math, even if you’re not an expert on the subject.

If this pandemic actually gets to Milan, that which is happening in Bergamo will seem like a stroll in the park. I regret not being in China where the army can shut everything down. Because that’s what’s needed.

So I’m begging you. Those of you who are healthy, take a step back. Because you all may have COVID without knowing it, and you’re all going out.

We’re not asking for much. Just for you to stay home. Please. We won’t fucking give up, but give us a hand and do your part.

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

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