The Life and Death Shift

The Life and Death Shift

On Thursday, March 19, Frazzetta arrived at Spedali Civili di Brescia wearing a mask, gloves and protective clothing. A helicopter carrying patients whirred overhead, and a car stopped short by the tents. A young woman, wearing a thin mask, dashed out of the driver’s side and ran to open the passenger door. Her father, heavy and old, slumped out onto the ground. Paramedics rushed to his aid, but he was soon pronounced dead.

As chaos enveloped the scene, Monica Falocchi, 48, walked through the intensive-care unit where she worked as head nurse. It was quiet but for the beeping of machines ventilating intubated patients. In a nearby room, she stood before Frazzetta and removed the mask that had been hurting her nose and cheeks and drying out her mouth all day. She posed before him with the eyes, he said, of someone “just off the battlefield.”

He finished shooting in Brescia, and before heading out to Bergamo, he carefully stripped off his protective gear for a break. He called his mother, who asked him how work had gone and if he was careful. She had a fever that was going up and down, she said. He heard her cough.

The next day, Frazzetta gained access to Luigi Sacco hospital. Unlike the hypermodern hospital of Bergamo, Sacco’s facility was spread over a set of shabby pavilions built around a small park. Roberto Rech, one of the hospital’s leading doctors, had personally ridden in an ambulance down to a small town, Codogno, on the first night of the outbreak. He inspected “Patient 1,” who is believed to have significantly spread the virus. Since then, he had worked constantly, trying to understand the invisible enemy.

Frazzetta saw in Rech the face of a professional in control of the situation, and he felt assured. But he also heard the doctors talk about how the virus sneaked up on people, that it could explode at any time. As Frazzetta shot more portraits, he felt his phone, sealed in a plastic bag, buzzing. It was his mother. He would call her back later.

That night, his mother’s fever went up. She called the local emergency medical line and was told to take some fever-reducing medicine. She did, and her fever went down. The next morning, Frazzetta edited his pictures and went to pick up some things for his parents. He got them fresh bread at the bakery, and then at the supermarket picked up milk and disinfectants, and also frozen foods and prosciutto. “Things that would keep,” he said.

He rang and left the bags at their door, stepping back to talk to his mother through his mask and her front window. Wait, she said, she would give him money for the groceries. Don’t be ridiculous, he told her, he didn’t want money. He jokingly lowered his mask to blow her a kiss. They decided to talk on the phone from a few feet away so they could hear each other better. Because he had his phone in his hand, he asked if he could take her picture. Fine, she said.

On Sunday night, her fever rose to more than 104 degrees, and her husband, who was sleeping in another room, found her struggling for air. At 5 a.m., the ambulance came and took her. On waking to the bad news, Frazzetta insisted that his father, who himself was feeling sick, also be taken to the hospital. After a half-dozen calls to the emergency line, a dispatcher agreed with Frazzetta and sent an ambulance to take his father to a Milan hospital.

For the next three days, his mother sat in the emergency room under an oxygen helmet. On Wednesday, a doctor put the phone against the clear plastic so his mother could talk to her sister; to her husband, who, unknown to her, was in another ward of the same hospital; and to Frazzetta. Over the hum of the oxygen, the photographer heard her voice. It was distant and wheezing.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m fine.”

Her condition deteriorated, and on Thursday the doctors met and decided that it made no medical sense to intubate her. Anna Maria Mentuni, 69, entered into a coma and died. She never made it past the emergency room.

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