Israel Start-Up Nation doctors battle coronavirus on the front lines

Pat Malach
Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

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Israel Start-Up Nation

Last year about this time, Israel Start-Up Nation team physician Dr. Maurizio Piombo was in the team car, screaming down the Via Roma in the heart of San Remo toward the finish of the season's first Monument, Milan-San Remo, taking in all that the storied Classic had to offer as the peloton closed in for another spectacular finish in the Italian coastal city.

A year later and the scene changed starkly, as Piombo returned to San Remo not to check on his WorldTour team's riders after another long day in the saddle, but to administer healthcare to a patient with coronavirus Covid-19 as part of his hard-hit country's effort to beat back the pandemic.

"I was standing there in the empty street, frozen with the memories of being here just a year ago when we all arrived with the Milano-San Remo race convoy," he said. "Thousands lined the streets, excited to welcome the first group of riders fighting it out to the finish line. I miss it. I am longing for the day we will be all be able to get back to it."

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Piombo is one of four Israel Start-Up nation team doctors who have turned their attention and services to helping their respective communities fight the spreading pandemic. Piombo makes house calls on patients and helps staff a makeshift testing center in an auditorium where they determine if symptoms are severe enough to justify coronavirus testing, hospitalization or just a return back to home isolation.

The other team physicians who have returned to work in their communities are Dr. Ortwin Schafer in Germany, Dr. Cyril Bartimaeus in France and Belgian Dr. Dag Van Elslande, who is also helping staff a makeshift testing center to determine if symptomatic people need treatment or should return home.

"We all are very well aware of the dangers we are facing," Van Elslande said. "When the team races have been put to a halt and we all went home, I could not stay home and do nothing. I wanted to be useful in any way I can. It is my first duty as a doctor."

Van Elslande described the precautions he and other healthcare workers are taking. 

"First you bathe, then it is half an hour of putting on the protective gear. At the end of a four-hours shift the whole process of taking it off repeats itself."

Healthcare workers have been among the virus' victims because they work in close proximity to patients who are carrying it. Despite the precautions, it is dangerous work. Piombo admitted he lives with the fear, but he doesn't let it control him.

"When at work, I don't let myself think about it," he said.

In France, Bartimaeus also raised an alarm about how dangerous the virus can be and how quickly it can overwhelm the system's capacity for care.

"I had 650 Patients last week,“ he said. “We are working 24 hours. I think it’s everywhere. This virus kills.”

Piombo said he is hopeful the worst days for Italy are past, but he also sounded a note of warning. 

"Luckily, here in San Remo, we were not hit like Bergamo," he said. "We are now testing more and more people, and with the lockdown we see the first indication that we are over the peak. I am fearful, though, that other countries will now face what we went through in the worst of days."