Roberto Tonelli was busy planning his September wedding, when the coronavirus pandemic hit his town of Modena, in Northern Italy. Soon, he and his fiancé, Ivana Castaniere, were discussing ventilation parameters instead of flower arrangements.
“We first met in the hospital,” Tonelli, 31, tells TIME at the end of a shift. “She was my boss!” These days, they work as pulmonologists at the same hospital side by side, 6 days a week, at least 14 hours a day.
As the weeks go on, doctors and nurses are increasingly bearing the brunt of the country’s fight against the spread of the virus. In Italy, more than 4,000 doctors and nurses have been infected, representing almost 8% of cases in Italy, according to the Italian National Institute of Health. Often, those on the frontlines are romantic partners. “The worst part of this is that you don’t want the person you love to see what you’re seeing,” he says. “But at least her face is the first thing I see when I remove my PPE.”
In small towns across Italy, it’s not only doctors who are related. Often, patients who enter the ICU come from the same family.
“Our first patients in Modena were two brothers,” says Castaniere. They recently hospitalized a 13-year-old girl. A few days later, her dad was wheeled into the ICU.
Tonelli’s patients often keep their phones with them to talk with their loved ones. They read the news and they see the casualty rates. “They ask me, will I die?” he says. “I never lie to my patients. I tell them, “we’re fighting this together.”
Tonelli and his fiancé have a 2-year-old daughter who is currently staying with grandparents. They haven’t seen her in over a month.
“I hope that when she grows up, she’ll consider us her heroes,” says Castaniere.”I hope she’ll understand.”
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