Spain's medics traumatized by first COVID-19 wave

Richard Belmonte is a nurse, and he hasn't treated a COVID patient for eight months.

But the mental trauma from working in the intensive care unit at Barcelona's Vall d'Hebron hospital during the first wave of the pandemic still lingers.

"When I arrived at the COVID-19 ICU my first sensation was fear, fear of the unknown, I didn't know what I was facing, colleagues who arrived before me went out and I remember the words that a colleague of mine said: 'This is a battlefield, this is a battlefield.'"

As the pandemic drags on, the emotional toll for healthworkers on the frontline is receiving increased scrutiny.

Spain is one of the worst hit. And the effects aren't always contained to the workplace.

In Belmonte's case, it's also more personal.

Not only was he forced to live away from his family to protect them from COVID-19, but both of his parents fell ill with the virus.

For his dad, the disease was fatal.

"My mother and father were in the same room with COVID and my father didn't make it, and I am angry that I couldn't take care of him, because I am a nurse, I like to take care of people and I couldn't do it with my father."

A recent study of 9,000 professionals in 18 hospitals in Spain showed that around 45% of healthcare staff there were at high risk of some type of mental disorder after just the first wave of the virus - and that 3.5% of them had suicidal thoughts.

Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder were the most common complaints.

Dr Eduard Vieta is the head of a Barcelona clinic which was part of the study.

He said although the hospital offered counselling, getting medics to come off the COVID frontline was tough because they "don't see their limits".

"There are certain prejudices and difficulties for professionals and for people in general to admit that one has psychological problems, because they are perceived as a weakness, as a personal fault, instead of admitting that it is a health problem like any other."

Belmonte refused counselling - choosing to tackle his struggles with the help of his family instead.

Despite his struggles, he says he would happily treat COVID patients in ICU in future.