As the B.C. provincial government called a state of emergency on March 18, the COVID-19 pandemic had already taken a stranglehold in parts of Europe.
That same day, two Okanagan healthcare workers travelled over 8,000 kilometres to provide assistance in Italy, one of the world’s most severe hotbeds for the virus at the time.
When Ian and Carolyn Larratt landed in Cremona, a city situated in northern Italy, the total number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in their home province of B.C. was 231. In Italy, that number was 35,713 — and it was skyrocketing.
Ian and Carolyn are a Summerland paramedic and a Kelowna General Hospital nurse who live together in their marital home in Kelowna. They signed up with Samaritan’s Purse in the fall of 2019 — with no inclination that their first deployment with the humanitarian aid organization would be for such a significant event.
“It’s not even slightly what we pictured going to,” said Ian.
Ian said he and his wife arrived in Cremona to find a hospital bursting at the seams, overrun resources and “tragedy everywhere.”
“The whole country was on lockdown,” he said. “It was pretty scary to see just how bad it can get.”
Ian and Carolyn worked at a 68-bed field hospital set up across several inflatable tents — a carbon copy of the one Samaritan’s Purse set up in New York City’s Central Park.
Of those 68 beds, there was also a 10-bed intensive care unit ventilators to care for critically ill patients.
The field hospital exclusively handled patients with COVID-19.
“It was stressful,” said Ian. “It’s a brand new disease. The information is changing on it every day. It’s hard to assess the personal risk you’re exposing yourself to and how the trend is going to go; how the story is going to unfold.”
Ian said the work was physically draining; dealing with long hours and arduous conditions. For the first two days, the healthcare workers were working in sub-zero temperatures and washing up — which they had to do quite frequently — in ice-cold water.
One of the hardest parts, Ian said, was wearing protective equipment all day, every day.
“We’d have to put Band-aids on the bridges of our noses because our faces got kind of eaten raw from wearing a mask all day,” he said.
But that still paled in comparison to the scale of tragedy and trauma experienced by the Italian people.
“A lot of heartbreaking stories,” he said. “It was rare to find a family that hadn’t been affected by it in one way or another.”
At the field hospital, Ian and Carolyn worked at, 281 patients were treated — 23 died. A total of 310 Samaritan’s Purse workers were deployed to Cremona, including 19 Canadians.
Translators were present, to assist in communication between patients and workers, but they didn’t arrive until a few days after Ian and Carolyn did.
“We’d use Google Translate whenever we had to,” said Ian.
Patients were sometimes moved from the overflowing main hospital to the field hospital while they were unconscious — prompting some confusion at the inflatable tent and surrounded by — as Ian described them — “funny looking people speaking English” once they awoke.
“From the patient’s perspective it was probably pretty unsettling,” Ian said. “I can’t imagine how hard that would be.”
Through the month they were there, Ian and Carolyn each got two nights off. Those nights were spent catching up on sleep and not much else.
“We got very familiar with the five-minute drive to and from the hotel,” Ian said. “That’s about all we got to see.”
The hotel the couple stayed in was provided by a local after hearing the workers were going to be staying in dorms.
Ian said when they first arrived they received a warm welcome, with residents of the area bringing home-cooked meals, and even fresh Italian pizza for the workers to enjoy.
“First time in Italy, but we can’t wait to go back and see it under more normal circumstances,” he said.
On May 7, a few weeks after Ian and Carolyn returned home to Kelowna, the field hospital discharged its last patient. It had accepted its first patient on March 20.
In coming home, Ian saw a stark contrast between what he’d witnessed in Cremona and how things are in Kelowna.
“COVID is definitely here, but so far the outbreak hasn’t been on the scale that it has been in Italy,” said Ian.
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