Family members weren’t allowed into the hospital because they, too, could get infected or spread the virus to others if they themselves were sick. But Duca asked for permission from his supervisor to let the man’s wife and daughter in, just for a few minutes. “I saw his face when he looked at his wife coming inside this room,” Duca recalls. “He smiled at her. It was a fraction of a second. He had this wonderful smile.” He continues: “Then I saw that he was looking at me. He realized that there was something wrong if only his relatives were coming inside.” The man knew in that instant that he was going to die, Duca says. As the man’s breathing worsened, morphine was started. He died 12 hours later.
“Which one is the lucky man of the day?” Brambillasca asks. He normally cares for very sick children who have had organ transplants, but since the outbreak, he has been called to float between the E.R. and the I.C.U. When we speak by phone one morning, on one of my days off, he sounds defeated. His wife, an otolaryngologist, has also been recruited to the effort: She is now working in a Covid unit in a neighboring hospital. I can hear their 1-year-old daughter in the background. Every day, Brambillasca feels inadequate. “I ask myself if I’m more useful if I go outside my home, take paper and alcohol and disinfect the doorknobs of my neighbors instead of going to work as a doctor,” he says.
Brambillasca tells me about how he had two patients side by side one day. One man was around 65 and had been on a ventilator for 10 days. He had heart problems, and he wasn’t improving. To his left was another man, about the same age but healthy. His breathing was becoming faster and shallower. Over the course of two minutes, Brambillasca decided to take the ventilator away from the first man and give it to the second one. “If you think of it as saving the most number of lives, that’s it, you have to do it,” he says. “But I’ll become an ice-cream maker instead of a doctor if I have to go on this way.”