PARMA, Italy (AP) — It was March 7, in the afternoon. Dr. Giovanni Passeri had just returned home from Maggiore Hospital, where he is an internist, when he was urgently called back to work. His ward at the hospital was about to admit its first COVID-19 case.

Driving back to the hospital, down the tree-lined streets of Parma, Passeri, 56, recalled thinking: “Am I going now to my execution?”

Italy’s more than 21,000 coronavirus dead have included scores of doctors, including a colleague of Passeri’s at Maggiore, a hospital in one of Italy’s hardest-hit northern provinces.

Since that afternoon more than a month ago, Passeri has worked every day. From the evening of April 7 until the morning of April 9, Associated Press photographer Domenico Stinellis documented his night and day, from a tense, 12-hour overnight shift to his drastically altered routine at home with his wife and 10-year-old son.

In his apartment, he sleeps alone in a garret room hastily converted into a bedroom to prevent any chance of transmitting the virus to his wife. The first time his son, Francesco, leaped up to hug him when Passeri came home after tending to coronavirus patients, the physician stiffened. That’s no longer safe, the physician had to say.

Now, when Passeri senses that the emotional pressure on Francesco is building too much, they play cards together. Each wears a mask.

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At work, colorful drawings are affixed to the front door of his hospital pavilion to boost morale. Reads one: “To all you warriors, thanks.”

Morale, though, can be a precious commodity. Passeri cannot forget the looks in his patients’ eyes when they gasp for air.

COVID-19, as the world now knows, can be devastating; it causes mild to moderate symptoms in many of those infected, but pneumonia and other life-threatening complications can ensue. Over 137,000 people with the virus have died worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say is almost certainly too low.

On this day, Passeri’s ward has 32 of the hospital’s 450 COVID-19 patients. With a gloved hand, he touches the bare hand of a patient in his 80s. The hiss of oxygen makes it impossible for another elderly patient to hear what Passeri is saying, so the doctor writes out an update on the man’s condition and hands it to him to read.

On a desk, cardboard boxes hold envelopes that contain medical charts. Two boxes are marked “discharged.” The third is marked “deceased.”

Mask, goggles, several pairs of gloves, three layers of protective gown, foot covers: At the end of his shift, Passeri removes all in a deliberate, practiced ballet to ensure that nothing contaminated by the virus will touch his skin. The shower he will take at home will be welcome relief.

On this night, he stretches out in his ‘’isolation’’ bedroom with a book, then gets some sleep before heading back to the hospital and joining his fellow medical warriors once more.

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D’Emilio reported from Rome.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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