Italian international Maxime Mbanda has leapt from the back row on the rugby pitch to the front line in the fight against the coronavirus, becoming a volunteer ambulance driver in Parma, and bears witness to a frightening reality on the pandemic.
Last Saturday, Mbanda was scheduled to face England in front of 60,000 people in Rome for his 21st Italian cap, but that match, like so many others, has been postponed.
Instead, wearing a mask and protective suit, he went out again as an ambulance driver with other volunteers from the Yellow Cross in Parma, in Emilia-Romagna, one of the areas most affected by the coronavirus.
By Saturday, almost 800 more people in Italy had died from the disease, taking the total in the country to 4,825.
"When everything was cancelled in rugby, I wondered how I could help, even without medical expertise," Mbanda, who plays for Zebre Rugby, the Parma club, told AFP.
"I found the Yellow Cross, which had a transport service for medicine and food for the elderly."
After one day delivering masks, food and prescriptions, the physical strength of the 26-year-old forward was put to good use where it was most needed, "on the front line, at the heart of the problem".
"I found myself transferring positive patients from one local hospital to another. I help with the stretcher or if there are patients to be carried from a wheelchair. I also hold the oxygen," he explains.
It is a situation of desperate urgency, where, he says, "95 per cent of hospital facilities are dedicated to coronavirus patients".
Il mio KIT e la mia SQUADRA ai tempi del COVID-19. @seirs.crocegialla.parma Un consiglio: SE SEI GIOVANE, NON VIVI CON ANZIANI O PERSONE CON MALATTIE PREGRESSE E PROPRIO NON RIESCI A STARE IN CASA CON LE MANI IN MANO, PROVA A FARE UNA CHIAMATA ALLA PUBBLICA ASSISTENZA ANPAS DELLA TUA CITTÀ’, POTREBBERO AVERE BISOGNO DI TE!
"If people saw what I see in the hospitals, there wouldn't be a queue in front of the supermarkets anymore," he said.
"They would think two, three or four times before leaving home, even to go running."
"What I see are people of all ages, on respirators, on oxygen, doctors and nurses on 20- or 22-hour shifts, not sleeping one minute of the day and just trying to get some rest the next day," he adds.
"I wish I could say that the situation here has reached its limit. But I'm afraid I have to say that's not the case."
Mbanda has no medical experience, but he is working with the support of his girlfriend and his father, a surgeon in Milan, "also on the front line."
Mbanda has had to become a psychologist in contact with patients put in wards "where death is the order of the day".
PAURA . La paura riesce ad azzerare ogni distinzione. La forza e la tenerezza nello stesso momento con le quali questa nonnina mi stringeva la mano mi ha fatto riflettere molto. Non siamo più bianchi, neri, gialli, cristiani, musulmani, ortodossi, gay, etero.. . Siamo tutti esseri umani e l’unica cosa alla quale pensiamo è mettere al riparo noi stessi, i nostri cari ed i nostri simili. È un periodo storico al quale molti di noi non sono abituati. Si è sempre parlato di guerre Mondiali, guerre in Siria, Iraq, Africa... . Ma questa volta il nemico é invisibile. In questi giorni sto imparando tanto. In fondo è normale avere paura, ma è il come si reagisce che differenzia il risultato. Solo se tutti seguiremo le direttive del Governo riusciremo a superare questo momento! 🇮🇹
"When you see the look in their eyes... Even if they can't speak, they communicate with the eyes and they tell you things you can't imagine," he said.
"They hear the alarms, the doctors and nurses running from one ward to the next.
"The first person I collected from the hospital told me that he had been there for three hours when the neighbour in the next bed died. And during the night, two other women died in his room. He had never seen anyone die."
You have to treat these patients "as if they were relatives or friends," he said.
"But the terrible thing is that every time you touch them, a simple caress in the ambulance to comfort them, you must immediately disinfect your hands."
"I started eight days ago, without a day's break and with shifts of 12 or 13 hours. But faced with what I see in the infectious disease rooms, I tell myself that I can't be tired," he says.
He believes others could also help.
"Fear is normal. But there are little things that can be done safely that would give those on the front lines a half-hour or an hour's rest. For them, an hour is crucial," he said.
Accustomed, as an Italian international, to tackling stronger opponents, Mbanda said he won't give up.
"As long as I'm strong, I'll keep going. I'm here and I'm staying here. As long as there's an emergency, I'm here and I'm staying here."