The doctors and nurses who came into her room at the Greek capital’s Attikon Hospital were always in medical coveralls and masks. She couldn’t distinguish their features or roles – just their eyes, and that only when their goggles weren’t fogged up.
Irini Tzourou, a retired chemical engineer, took a turn for the worse on her seventh day, contracting pneumonia. She felt like her chest was being crushed by a block of concrete. The top half of the door of her isolated room was made of glass, allowing her to see into the hall and through the window on the other side, which offered her a glimpse of the mountain. “Catching the sunrise was so important,” the 70-year-old coronavirus survivor tells Kathimerini after being discharged from the Attikon on March 30, nearly a month after being admitted.
Our interview is conducted by telephone as she’s not allowed to see anyone until her immune system recovers. “The treatment I received from the entire staff was excellent. I felt confident that I was in good hands,” she says.
Diagnosed with Covid-19 on March 10, Tzourou was among the first confirmed coronavirus cases in Greece to be hospitalized. She had spiked a fever a week after returning from a trip to Munich with her husband and, even though she had no other symptoms to suggest she had Covid-19, she took the test at a private clinic. It came back positive for SARS-CoV-2 and Type B influenza.
The National Organization for Public Health (EODY) decided that she needed to be admitted to hospital because of her age and the fact that she suffers from asthma.
Caring for Covid-19 patients is complicated. “Every time they brought in the ultrasound machine, they had to sterilize it completely afterward,” says Tzourou.
She wasn’t allowed any visitors and she found concentrating on a book too difficult. She’d watch some television, but everything seemed to revolve around the coronavirus crisis. “I spent a lot of time on my mobile phone. Thank God for Facebook or my brain would have turned to mush,” she says, adding that her friends sent her encouraging messages every day.
Three days before Tzourou’s diagnosis, on March 7, a 43-year-old man was admitted to one of the other five referral hospitals in Athens assigned to treat coronavirus patients. With no underlying conditions and in excellent physical shape, he was not considered vulnerable, “but the virus still bit me,” he tells Kathimerini on the condition of anonymity.
The doors that led to the Covid-19 isolation ward at Attikon Hospital.
Like Tzourou, he also developed pneumonia and had to spend 20 days at the Sotiria Hospital in the northern suburb of Holargos. His ordeal began with a persistent fever. It hadn’t crossed his mind that he could be infected with the novel coronavirus, which seemed at the time to be limited only to people who had recently traveled abroad. He lost his sense of taste and smell – a symptom that has also been reported by other patients – and felt weak, but he didn’t have a cough or difficulty breathing.
“My legs felt heavy. I could barely make it three steps to the bathroom without feeling that my muscles were on fire,” he says.
He called a doctor for advice and took the test. After it came back positive, some 60 people in his close environment were traced and tested – all came back negative.
He described his first day in hospital as a “shock.” His condition worsened in the second week and he was also badly shaken by the news of the death on Crete of 42-year-old German university lecturer Andreas Hilboll on March 25. They were almost the same age.
“I want to thank the staff. From the doctors and nurses to the people who brought the food and cleaned, everyone was exemplary,” he says. “They were all very sweet.”
He was also concerned by reports about Covid-19 patients who developed long-term complications as a result of contracting pneumonia. “It’s best not to rely on what you read on the internet,” he says.
“The biggest challenge is ensuring that patients can return home and not have problems in the future,” Stelios Loukidis, a doctor at the Attikon and a professor of pneumonology, tells Kathimerini. “What we’re aiming for is to have all the different areas of specialization that are involved working together. We have accomplished that and are all doing our best.”
Rooms in the Covid-19 clinic of Attikon Hospital.
According to the most recent directives issued by EODY, Covid-19 patients are discharged on the basis of their clinical appearance and are not required to take an additional molecular test to confirm whether they are still carriers. They are sent into self-quarantine at home, where all confirmed Covid-19 patients are instructed to avoid contact with anyone else in or outside their household for least 14 days. Health authorities also ensure that discharged patients have a doctor they can call with any concerns. They can relax the conditions at home only after three days without a fever (without the use of medicine) or symptoms of breathing difficulties. Two tests are conducted when a patient who is ready to be discharged lives with someone who is considered especially vulnerable.
“I haven’t been able to hug my children or my wife yet and that’s a bit tough, but it’s great to be back at home, in a bigger room, in my own bed,” says the 43-year-old.
Tzourou tested negative on her 10th day at the Attikon Hospital and was transferred to the pneumonology ward, where she completed her treatment. Going back home was like a party for Tzourou, even though she couldn’t be welcomed by her children and grandchildren.
“It never crossed my mind that I might die. Perhaps because I never ran out of strength. I felt full of fight,” she says.