“I’m Very Scared”: A 30-Year-Old Mom Confronts the Coronavirus, as Doctors Are Forced to Make Life-and-Death Choices

May 18, 2020

Over the hiss of oxygen masks, ER doctor Francesca Mangiatordi is making phone call after phone call.

The emergency room at Cremona Hospital, where she works, is facing a crush of people showing up with probable COVID-19. They’re feverish and struggling to breathe, their lung function revealed to be dramatically diminished in CT scans. Many of them, both old and young, need to be admitted.

But even though every single unit at the hospital is now being used to treat COVID patients, there still aren’t enough beds. So, in a chilling horror that’s become routine, Dr. Mangiatordi is having to prioritize admitting the young patients over the old. And in what is now a regular ritual, she’s phoning around to each hospital ward in search of an opening.

Over and over again, she asks, “Can you tell me if you have any beds, please? Nothing? Thanks.”

She pauses only to curse under her breath.

This intense scene unfolds in Inside Italy’s COVID War, an unprecedented FRONTLINE documentary filmed inside Cremona Hospital at the height of Italy’s coronavirus crisis as the outbreak overwhelmed the country’s health system and doctors were forced to make life-and-death decisions.

“I believe it’s an unfair battle. We have few weapons. The virus has them all. But with the few we have, we are trying to resist and fight back,” Dr. Mangiatordi says in the documentary.

Directed with astonishing intimacy by award-winning filmmaker Sasha Joelle Achilli, who was born and raised in northern Italy and returned there to document the coronavirus fight, Inside Italy’s COVID War follows Dr. Mangiatordi and her staff as they battle COVID-19 in a region that’s at the epicenter of the country’s outbreak — as the volume of cases becomes unmanageable, and as younger and younger patients fall ill.

Among them is Cristel, a 30-year-old mother of three young girls, whom we meet in the above excerpt as she waits at the hospital for a CT scan. She’s heard that the virus is most lethal for the elderly, so she’s hopeful about her chances for survival. “But I’m very scared,” she says.

Once she’s had the scan, that fear mounts. Cristel begs the nurse pushing her wheelchair to be honest with her about whether the damage to her lungs is serious: “Tell me. I’ve got three girls,” she says. “Tell me the truth.”

The nurse can’t answer her. But we watch as Dr. Mangiatordi views the results of Cristel’s scan, her face grim. A fairly widespread area of the young woman’s lung is not functioning.

“There’s no doubt that the test will come back positive,” the doctor says. “She’s 30 years old. Healthy. It’s no longer true that it’s affecting just the elderly.”

Then, Dr. Mangiatordi returns to her telephone.

It’s time to call around to in search of another open bed.

For the full story, watch Inside Italy’s COVID War when it’s released on Tues., May 19. The documentary will be available to stream in the PBS Video App and at pbs.org/frontline starting at 7 p.m. E.D.T./6 p.m. C.D.T. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 10 p.m. E.D.T./9 p.m. C.D.T.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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