As Brazil crashes through new records for Covid-19 cases and deaths, some health workers are barely hanging on. One nurse in São Paulo told CNN that he had to assist in removing one elderly Covid-19 patient from a ventilator – knowing that it could be a death sentence – because there weren’t enough to go around. A paramedic in the same city recounted the day an entire intensive care unit’s oxygen supply suddenly malfunctioned, threatening to suffocate intubated Covid-19 patients as he raced to pump air into their lungs.
Here are their stories, as told to CNN’s Matt Rivers and Marcia Reverdosa.
‘It was sad, so sad, a war scenario’ – Luis
“I arrived at my shift and had barely gotten changed when I got a call about the failure in the oxygen equipment. There was an oxygen supply but it wasn’t reaching the patients and so there was this scramble to try and get oxygen from other places.
“I gave them the two oxygen cylinders I had in my ambulance. And then I contacted my headquarters to see if there were other ambulances who could give their cylinders. But it still wasn’t enough. So we started a convoy to another hospital to go get more oxygen cylinders. We returned with 8 more cylinders of oxygen and it was a crazy rush to install those and try and move patients out.
“We then managed to transfer some of the patients but unfortunately, there were deaths. We lost lives, I can’t tell you how many.
“Before we could get the oxygen turned on the staff had started to ventilate the patients manually, by hand. I’m so thankful for the team that day. Their effort undoubtedly saved lives that day.
“It was sad, so sad, a war scenario. I am someone who has already experienced Covid, I was close to being intubated. So, it was sad to see what I saw, I can’t really describe what I saw there but it is so sad what is happening to our country. It wasn’t that Monday only, it’s like this every day.
“We’re watching all this happen and we don’t know what’s going on or who is to blame. You can’t blame anyone, the virus is here and were are having to learn to live with it.
“It’s been really complicated, I got sick with Covid-19, was hospitalized and I have long-term effects until this day. And my work never stops. It’s been three or four months since I started working again and I am still in pain, both physically and seeing the pain and suffering of the people here.
Editor’s note: At this point, Luis starts softly crying. He pauses for a bit to compose himself.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. There is this cycle of taking a patient to a hospital and then the hearse comes to fetch another body. It hurts too much. Those looking from the outside don’t understand or can’t even imagine what we are going through. Our situation is critical, we are so overwhelmed.
“That Monday [when the oxygen supply failed] I took three showers. I took two during my shift and one before I left so I could go home and try and hug my kids.”
– Luis Eduardo Pimentel, a paramedic at the Ambulance Emergency service of the City of São Paulo
‘It scares us to see someone that looks like us being killed by this disease so fast’ – anonymous
“I work in the emergency room and it has seven beds. This week there were 14 patients inside and 10 of them were intubated. Now we’ve turned the room where we store medicines into a ward as well.
“We are medicating patients in the corridor because there is no other place to accommodate them. And then there are other patients in the corridors waiting for beds. Anytime one patients leaves, there are already two or three more waiting for a bed. The situation is really difficult.
“I have been in this unit for one year and four months and I have never experienced what we are experiencing today, even during the first wave. In the first wave we were more than prepared, we were able to transfer patients. But in this second wave it seems that it took everyone by surprise and I don’t know why.
“It’s an absurd number of cases and not just the elderly, or people with comorbidities, there are much younger people, in the age group of 28 to 33 to 40 years old, who are getting into severe states and need to be intubated – and unfortunately are losing their lives due to Covid-19. Yesterday a 30 year-old woman died as soon as she got to the unit. It scares us to see someone that looks like us being killed by this disease so fast.
“There was an episode that we had to decide between two people: We had an intubated patient who had already been in the unit for 10 days with a bad prognosis, without a visible chance to get better and also had a younger patient who was otherwise healthy with no comorbidities.
“We didn’t have a respirator [for the younger patient]. So the medical director had to choose to extubate this older patient in order to intubate the younger one. It was a tough call for the doctor. But … we understood that this would be the norm now.
“We knew that this could mean the death of that patient. To extubate a patient means the health system gave up on him, basically only making him comfortable until he passed. During my shift he was still alive, but I don’t know what happened afterwards.”
– An emergency care nurse, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. (CNN followed up this weekend – the older patient is still alive.)
These interviews have been lightly edited for length.