In the Right Place
by Luca Fiore
In New York it is a new “September 11th.” Francesco Rotatori shares what is happening with him and his colleagues.
“The most gratifying part of my work has always been seeing people healed. I take care of them, and they heal. Now it’s not like that. Almost all of them die. Many come from nursing homes. Eighty percent of those who are intubated die. We are living what you have already seen in Italy. Those who do get through it maybe would have survived anyway. Tonight, I saw five people pass away. One was a woman to whom I had promised that everything would go well.”
Francesco Rotatori, from Fano, married with four children, is an interventional cardiologist at Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island, New York. Today, the world’s attention has moved from Lombardy to the Big Apple where, as some have said, because of the number of victims, every day is a new “September 11.”
His daily bread up until the pandemic were angioplasties and acute heart attacks. Now that his hospital has been converted for the care of Covid patients, he spends day and night in the department in front of this emergency.
We reach him at the end of his round tonight. And his story is one with the story of these days: “I arrived in the United States in 2005, and I had a unique path. Unlike many of my Italian colleagues, who landed at prestigious hospitals or universities, I did not have a brilliant academic career. At least it seemed so to me. And often I asked myself what I was doing here in America. What was I doing here in Staten Island?”
How did you respond?
In a moment like this, you understand what you are here to do in the world. In 2001, I saw my mother die from a tumor on her lung. I was with her moment by moment, even on the night she passed away. Now I am reliving that moment every day. I see the last breaths of these people. I have a strong feeling of anger. But I am also sensing a call. A task.
In what sense?
That maybe I am the right person in the right place. That I was not put here by chance. I don’t know. Some of my colleagues have pulled back. I am here. Even if tonight I could have just stayed home.
Why do you stay?
Last night I came across a young doctor finishing his rounds. His eyes were tired and he looked upset. It is not easy to see so many people die, but for him it was a trauma. I told him: “I am going to stay here tonight so that we can be together when one of the patients dies.” I feel called to be near people in their suffering. Near to the patients but also to the young doctors.
What helps you?
I find myself with a positivity that I do not give myself. I don’t know, maybe it is the education I received from my family and my faith. But I see that this attitude breaks through everyone. And here there are people from every nationality and religion. It is as if this position is what everyone, or almost everyone, desires deep down.
What are you noticing?
The hospital has seventeen beds for intensive care. The city of New York asked us to have seventy beds available. And we only have one intensive care doctor. So we have had to reinvent everything. And I see that, when I propose something, people follow me. I may not have had the authority to do it, but when I proposed that they put up a plexiglass wall, the administration provided the material. It’s kind of embarrassing. But that’s how it happens.
Why do you think that is?
We see that the majority of the patients die. Our strength seems useless. Why is it worth it to give everything anyway? And I answered this question: because in my life I have seen that starting from a positive hypothesis makes things more intelligent and effective. And the culture here in America appreciates this.
And where do you see the positive in the situation you are in? Who or what do you look at so that this positivity is not just an idea?
I think of my wife. I think of the fact that I am loved. And an interior peace comes out of me that is mysterious. It is not wishful thinking, because that would not last in front of what I am seeing.
If the medicine can do little or nothing, what can a doctor do?
There was a Covid patient who also had Parkinson’s and who asked me for a glass of water. He had it in his head that he wanted to drink it by himself. But his hand shook and he couldn’t do it. He refused to be helped. I said to myself: “I have other things to do…”. Then I thought: “But I might be the last person he sees.” So I stood on one side and, without him seeing, with a finger I moved the glass in the right direction. It took us ten minutes. From the medical point of view, those were ten minutes lost. Nothing that could have given him any hope of surviving. But, in those ten minutes, I was loving him.
And at the hospital, who is helping you to maintain this position?
It is very strange. Staten Island is an area where the society is similar to Desperate Housewives or Jersey Shore. Difficult situations. It is the area with the highest rate of opioid abuse. And so many people who work in hospitals come from here. In particular, some of the employees at my clinic amaze me, because, hearing me talk about those first days of the emergency, they offered themselves voluntarily. Now they work with me with the Covid patients. They are young people who let themselves be fascinated by my enthusiasm. But now I am the one who is amazed by them.
What amazes you?
There was a young patient who, because of a lack of oxygen, as often happens, was hallucinating and tried to take off his mask. If you get distracted and the patient takes off the mask, he risks dying in just a few minutes. Two of these girls, for an entire hour, held, caressed, and massaged the hands of that young man. I know the stories of these young women. And a gesture like that moved me. The fact of not being alone is fundamental. Whether in the relationship with the patient or among each other as colleagues. And it is always more evident to me that it is not a question of where one comes from culturally or religiously. It is something that belongs to man.
How do you understand this?
The other day the chaplain of the hospital went on the public service microphone and said: “Let us unite ourselves in prayer in this difficult moment. Each person, to his or her own God, pray that God may help and accompany us.” Next to me there were a Chinese and an Iranian colleague. An absolute silence fell in that department. It was clear that all of us had the need to look at something bigger than death. The fact that everyone can go to that level makes me understand that the response of Jesus is not just something good for me or for my friends. It is a response for the heart of everyone.
Translation Courtesy of Matthew Henry
Editor's Note: this article also appears in the Italian edition of Traces.