While the coronavirus outbreak may have started in China, it was its explosive growth in Italy that took the world by surprise. Currently, Worldometer reports that there have been nearly 70,000 cases and 6,820 deaths there. Despite the unique nature of this global crisis, Samaritan’s Purse received permission to send a medical response team to one of the hardest hit areas. 

The Daily Citizen recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ken Isaacs, the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations and my former boss at Samaritan’s Purse. He’s been on the front lines leading efforts to respond to numerous disasters, including the Rwandan genocide, the 2004 South Asian tsunami, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and numerous other disasters, including this latest response in Italy. 

“It’s very intense,” Ken Isaacs said. “What I’m hearing back from staff is that citizens are somewhere between hopelessness, fear and desperation. They were very grateful that we came and the told us broadly that they thought no one would come and help them. They’re reaction was sort of shocked that we showed up and they could not have been more inviting, hospitable and gracious.” 

After receiving a gracious welcome, the team immediately went to work setting up a large field hospital with roughly 65 volunteer medical personnel from around the world. These volunteers include physicians, nurses, lab technicians and other health care professionals that can run a field hospital capable of supporting Italian medical teams in their time of crisis. These volunteers work two 12-hour shifts, with one shift starting at 7am and the other 7pm. They have a 68-bed facility, with seven of those are ICU rooms with ventilators. 

“The Cremona hospital is a 600-bed facility and essentially they’ve stopped seeing all patients except those with coronavirus,” Isaacs said. “When the team arrived, a local businessman told the team that they would not be staying in tents. He rented more than 60 hotel rooms for 90 days, so everybody had a room. The business community there hired a chef and they’re cooking food for all of the volunteers. So, they’re all well fed and have buses that take them on the three-minute drive at the end of their shift back to the hotel. It’s a beautiful city and lovely, lovely people.”

In many ways, it was divine providence. Samaritan’s Purse opened up their first field hospital in 2016 after Ecuador experienced a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The disaster killed almost 700 people. Since then, the field hospital has been deployed in Iraq (near Mosul), Mozambique, Bahamas and now in Italy.

“I think the Italian health care workers are overwhelmed, and the death rate among the health care workers might be around 8 or 9%,” Isaacs said. “So, they’re working hard. A lot of them have fallen sick and some of their coworkers have died so that’s been disheartening, but it’s encouraging for someone new to come in and help.”

It also isn’t just about medical care but spreading hope in Christ’s Name. Recently, a Chaplain deployed with the medical team was able to lead a patient to the Lord. An incredible opportunity, and one that may not have been available without a ministry like Samaritan’s Purse stepping in. The other countries that have offered to provide medical assistance and field hospitals include China, Russia and Cuba, all of which are currently or formerly communist governments.

“I was so grateful that we were there before (the Chinese, Russians and Cubans),” Isaacs said. “We were just tracking the maps, where the disease is hottest and fastest growing. In Italy, it just looked like nobody was helping there and nobody could get it under control. As a ministry, we didn’t represent ourselves or purport that we could get it under control, we just offered to come and help. We’re giving the best care that we can, it’s first world care and we’re working closely with the Italian doctors.

“The team has been deeply moved by the warmth and reception. We want to be there to minister to them, of course physically but also spiritually and share the love of Christ with them. We got a wonderful letter from the Bishop in that area welcoming his Evangelical brothers and sisters.”

“I actually think it was fortuitous and providential that we went to northern Italy,” Isaacs said. “I had never heard of Cremona until we had been assigned there so I didn’t know where it was or where exactly we would be sent. But after I mentioned the possibility of setting up a field hospital in a call with a member of the National Security Council, the next thing I knew I heard the Prime Minister of Italy was involved, and we received two invitations.”

As the response continues, pray for the volunteer medical team members in Italy, that they will have strength, endurance, health, wisdom and favor as they continue to work in challenging conditions. Pray for the medical teams in the United States as well as they potentially gear up for an Italy like event here. And pray for the Italian people as the economy will likely suffer after the loss of businesses and the income from 31 million tourists. 

“This just goes to show you how vulnerable life is and that we’ve never really been in control,” Isaacs shared. “For me as a Christian, it just makes me have more solidified trust in God. I know that’s weird because people might say how could you trust in a God that would let this happen. I think He’s sovereign, as a believer we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Our job is to proclaim Christ and help in His name. We’re not called to live in a spirit of fear.”