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EUI staff members brave COVID-19 as Red Cross volunteers

Posted on 27 April 2020

‘It’s different than a normal rescue job.’

Andrea Sacchettini and Pauline Depierreux have no doubts: working with the Red Cross during the Covid-19 pandemic is an experience unlike any other.

EUI Building Manager Andrea Sacchettini and Academic Service administrative coordinator Pauline Depierreux are among the Red Cross volunteers on the frontline of Florence’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Donning the flaming red suits of the Red Cross or fully decked out in protective gear, they volunteer on emergency ambulances, rescuing Covid-19 patients. Since the pandemic struck Florence, working in the Red Cross has become their full-time second job, complete with weekend and night shifts. They both have gone from working an average of four weekends a month, to racking up 30 hours in one week. 

Easter holidays were also spent volunteering, immerged in the ‘strange atmosphere’ that has gripped Italy.

Born and raised in Florence, Andrea Sacchettini has been a member of the Red Cross since 2006. ‘I wanted to do something more active for humanity’ he says, citing a life-long desire to emulate his father, who was also a rescuer.  

Sacchettini Red Cross

Andrea Sacchettini has volunteered with the Red Cross for 14 years

In his 14 years as a Red Cross volunteer, Andrea has earned an impressive list of achievements, becoming a CPR instructor and coordinating missions abroad, most notably in the Balkans. His experience in earthquake-stricken territories led him to L’Aquila, where he was responsible for social activities in the Colle di Maggio camp, after the 2009 earthquake in Central Italy became one of the deadliest in modern Italian history.

Belgian-born Pauline Depierreux joined the Red Cross in 2019, inspired by a friend who also had been a volunteer rescuer. Her friend’s sudden death from a heart attack jolted Pauline into action. 'I thought [that] if I had been dying from a heart attack he would have been able to help me' she says. After a lunch with Andrea in the EUI canteen, in which he recounted his experiences, Pauline became a volunteer. She quickly realised that her place was on the Red Cross’ emergency ambulances. After training for a year and shadowing expert volunteers, she became a certified advanced rescuer.

Depierreux Red Cross

Pauline Depierreux prepares for a rescue wearing COVID-19 protective gear

Despite Andrea and Pauline’s experience, they both agree that the COVID concerns have drastically altered the dynamics of answering an emergency call. ‘This is the first time I have been scared’, Andrea says. ‘Scared for myself, scared for the people [I am rescuing], scared for the people they have back home’. Fear and uncertainty hang heavy in the air, as rescuers face an intangible danger they can only fight by meticulously following safety protocols and wearing cumbersome protective gear.

The fear and the equipment are not the only thing that make COVID-19 rescue operations different from any other. The psychological burden is also unique. First of all, volunteers working on a COVID-19 case brave the rescue alone. In order to diminish the risk of contamination, rescue teams have been whittled down to just one rescuer and a driver, instead of a team of three to five people.

‘Everything is on you’ Pauline says. ‘You have to take care of the patient by yourself and you need to be extra careful, because any mistake that you make could have a lot of consequences for yourself’.

However, the medical responsibilities are only part of the scenario lone rescuers face when they enter the home of a COVID-19 patient. ‘We have to take care of the person psychologically, while also being in these suits’, Pauline says, describing the shock many feel when seeing a rescuer clad in head-to-toe protective gear.

Patients are not the only people who need psychological care. ‘The third category of people, whose fear is probably the heaviest, is the partners and parents [of the patient]’ Pauline says. The rescue could be the last time family members see their loved one.

‘Even after they die, relatives won’t be able to see their departed’ Andrea explains, referring to the fact victims are cremated and that current lockdown measures prohibit funerals. ‘They are now recommending people bring their mobile phones and chargers [to the hospital]’, he adds as phones are the only way you can say goodbye.

It’s a situation that plays an important part on how they conduct COVID-19 rescues. “I try to give them some intimacy, because maybe they will never see each other again” Pauline says, a view echoed by Andrea, whose shares her view on the delicate balance between professionalism and tact.

‘It was difficult to approach people in the earthquake too, but at that point it was reassuring, here you have fear.’ In places such as Bergamo, the epicenter of the Italian outbreak, the situation was even worse. ‘In Bergamo they were scared to breathe the city air, there is a real feeling of death that we do not have here.’ Andrea says, telling me of colleagues there who worked 12 hour shifts in their hazmat suits.

The workload of volunteers such as Andrea and Pauline is made heavier by the fact that only a third of Red Cross members are currently involved in COVID-19 efforts. Many are unable to help, afraid to expose themselves or vulnerable relatives to the virus. For Pauline, such circumstances were an additional reason to put herself on the frontline, volunteering to take the place of a team member whose child had recently recovered from a tumor.

Despite their noble efforts, Pauline and Andrea do not want to be called heroes. ‘We are not heroes, we are nothing special: everyone could do what we are doing and now is a good time to do something’, Pauline says.

Andrea too, encourages people to join volunteer efforts, emphasising that ‘you can do many jobs without going on the ambulance’ and that ‘every job is important’.

As more EUI community members become volunteers in the city, Andrea adds that, after all, in volunteering, ‘you get the most satisfaction as one of the helpers’.