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In Lombardy, ground zero of the COVID-19 epidemic that has killed thousands of Italians, a rapid-response group is caring for patients in dire need – and practising to do the same back home

Watch: Take a look inside the field hospital in Cremona, Italy, set up by the charity Samaritan’s Purse.

The Globe and Mail

The main hospital in Cremona, in northern Italy, was overwhelmed. Since the start of Italy’s coronavirus crisis last month, none of the patients in its small critical-care unit had survived.

As desperation set in among the hospital workers, an ancient DC-8 jet landed nearby, at Verona airport, on March 17 and discharged a team of medics that included eight Canadian nurses and 20 tonnes of equipment. With military speed and precision, the team erected a M*A*S*H-style emergency field hospital next to Cremona’s hospital within 36 hours and set to work trying to save lives in the deadliest of Europe’s COVID-19 hot spots.

Four days later, the DC-8 delivered more medics and equipment. Today, the field hospital, operated by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charity, has 14 tents and 68 beds; 10 of the beds form an intensive-care unit and each is equipped with a pulmonary respirator, a proved life-saver for the critically ill. “You could say we’re an extension of the Cremona hospital,” said Ian Stokes, international disaster response director for Samaritan’s Purse Canada.

Samaritan's Purse DC-8 cargo plane brought the disaster team to northern Italy, along with 20 tonnes of tents and medical equipment they would need.David K. Morrison

Other than saving lives, the medics’ goal is to learn as much about the new virus as they can on the assumption that the Italian tragedy could be repeated in Canada and the United States. “The nurses will bring valuable insights when they return to Canada about treating COVID-19 patients,” Mr. Stokes said.

John Troke, 43, who is from Winnipeg and is the nursing team leader in Cremona, said the overburdened Cremona hospital is grateful for the instant field hospital. “We’re working closely with the hospital and we’re relieving some of the pressure on them,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday.

The Samaritan’s Purse team in Cremona has now reached full capacity, with a group of 67: doctors, nurses, technicians, hygiene specialists and electricians, mostly from Canada, United States and Britain. At the moment, it contains about 50 patients and has already released 12. One patient died earlier this week.

Mr. Troke is a veteran of several emergency medical missions, mostly recently in 2019 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Samaritan’s Purse treated Ebola patients. The COVID-19 disease has already alarmed the team because it can spread so quickly. “It’s not as deadly as Ebola but the unique aspect about it is that it’s very infectious,” he said. “It really targets vulnerable older people. You really do see the suffering of the patients.”

The Cremona emergency unit, erected in the parking lot next to the city's main hospital, is at full capacity, housing about 50 patients.Kim E Rowland/Samaritan's Purse/Kim E. Rowland/Samaritan's Purse

Cremona – the birthplace of master luthier Antonio Stradivari – is about 100 kilometres southeast of Milan in the region of Lombardy, now infamous as the centre of the European COVID-19 outbreak. At last count, Lombardy had almost 35,000 COVID-19 cases, more than France or Iran, and 4,861 deaths – more than half the Italian total. Cremona (population 72,000) and its vicinity alone had 3,340 cases by Thursday.

Samaritan’s Purse started in the United States in 1970, expanded to Canada in 1990 and is led by Franklin Graham, son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham. The group’s specialty is disaster relief missions. Well-funded and equipped – the four-engine DC-8 jet is its own – it has sent medical teams to Liberia during the Ebola outbreak, house-repair teams to areas wrecked by hurricanes and floods in the Bahamas and Mozambique, and distributed food to displaced people in Darfur.

The charity has its critics. Franklin Graham was criticized by Islamic leaders in Britain in 2003 for calling Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” A couple of years earlier, The New York Times reported that it “blurred the lines between church and state” when it was helping victims of the El Salvador earthquake.

Italian soldiers attend the field hospital's inauguration on March 20.MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Stokes said the charity offered to fly in a team to Cremona as the Lombardy COVID-19 outbreak went from serious to disastrous. In recent weeks, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has sought international help for the country’s overburdened hospitals. Medical teams from Russia, Cuba and China, among other countries, have sent in teams of doctors and aircraft full of medical equipment such as face masks, protective gowns and ventilators.

The need for help has become more urgent in recent days as thousands of infected Italian medics are placed in quarantine. By Thursday, 33 hospital workers, including doctors, had died, according to Italy’s National Institute of Health. The Cremona medics are well-aware they could get infected; they have their temperatures taken twice daily. None has shown any symptoms so far, Mr. Troke said.

The Samaritan’s Purse team in Cremona is entirely self-sufficient, aware that the operation cannot rob any resources form the 600-bed Cremona hospital. All of the team’s equipment – ventilators, monitors, beds, the pharmacy and testing laboratory – will be left behind so it can deployed elsewhere.

The eight Canadian nurses will be rotated back home after 30 days, after which new team members will be flown in. The mission is expected to last three months and costs about US$1-million a month to operate, Mr. Stokes said.

Mr. Troke said Canada needs to learn from the Italian experience. “In Canada, we need to really prepare ourselves and test aggressively so we can contact trace,” he said, referring to tracking people who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Kim E. Rowland/Samaritan's Purse

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