By Juan Medina
MADRID (Reuters) - Despite many sleepless nights on Spain's COVID-19 frontline, Dr Navid Behzadi Koochani of Madrid's regional ambulance service goes to work smiling almost every day.
Calls to the Madrid service have jumped by a third in the year since the coronavirus struck the world, averaging 4,000 a day, but Behzadi, 48, is proud of his team's ability to swoop in and save lives, and is optimistic the vaccine rollout heralds the end of the pandemic.
"I honestly think it's the best job in the world," said the 15-year ambulance service veteran who came to Spain from Iran.
"When you see that you have been able to be useful, been able in some way to improve the quality of life of a person or save their life, that stays with you forever."
But he admits it can be tough.
"Nobody likes having someone die in their arms."
With more than 3 million cases and over 71,000 deaths, Spain has been hit harder than most countries in Europe. But the infection rate has now fallen to its lowest since August.
"I'm optimistic that in a few months we will be able to take off our masks again, hug each other and have a beer with our friends," he said.
Before transferring a COVID-19 patient between Madrid hospitals, Behzadi's team don head-to-toe protective gear, taping the sleeves of their brilliant white overalls to form an airtight seal with their blue gloves.
Afterwards they hose each other down with disinfectant in a ritual that has become all too familiar since the first wave tore through the Spanish capital a year ago, killing thousands and forcing authorities to turn an ice rink into a morgue.
"Honestly, those were some very bad, very painful days," said nurse Sara Diaz Castro, recalling how the team would race from call to call, sometimes arriving too late to help.
The team responds to fewer COVID emergencies now, but they know first-hand how the virus can still tear lives apart.
On a recent callout, Behzadi was unable to revive a 35-year-old man who died with COVID-19, leaving behind a young daughter while his wife was in hospital with a severe case.
"These are situations that affect you emotionally... You're there the next day thinking over how fragile life really is and, on the other hand, how lucky we are to be alive."
Stress on medical personnel is a major concern. A recent study found 45% of Spain's healthcare staff ran a high risk of some type of mental disorder after the first wave, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Frontline medics like the Madrid ambulance crews have been found to suffer more than other health professionals.
Morale on the team is good, nurse Diaz says, although they are all tired after a year of fighting the virus.
Like many in her profession she has not been able to meet her elderly parents indoors for over a year and she longs to return to how things were before.
"I want to go out with my friends, I want to go to work and not have to wear protection. I want to see patients without a mask."
After finishing a 24-hour shift, she takes time to decompress and play with her kids or go for a run. The virus has made her stronger and more appreciative of what she has.
"You have to enjoy every little moment you have in life because you don't know what might happen to you."
(Reporting by Juan Medina; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)