As the son of a surgeon, Italian international Maxime Mbanda has grown up alongside people who save lives.

So, when the opportunity arose to help his country in its hour, days, weeks and months of need, the flanker did not think twice about offering his services in the fightback against COVID-19.

In an emotional podcast interview with World Rugby’s Sean Maloney, national hero Mbanda speaks about his volunteering role as an ambulance driver in his home city of Parma, a role where a ‘try’ is a matter of life and death.

Mbanda takes listeners back to the moment when any sense of normality disappeared from his and everyone else’s world.

“I was with the Italian team and we were preparing for a Six Nations game against England. When they told us no game would be played, they sent us home,” he explains.

“I had time on my hands, and I wondered what I could do to help my community, despite not having the necessary medical skills.

“I searched on the internet and came across an article that talked about a collaboration between the Municipality of Parma and the Yellow Cross. It mentioned bringing food and drugs to the elderly who’d been forbidden to leave the house to safeguard their lives.

“So the first day I started doing that, but by the second day the Yellow Cross asked me to help transport positive coronavirus patients from one hospital to another.”

Staring death in the eyes

Mbanda speaks about how he was working anything up to 17-hour shifts at the height of the crisis, seeing things he hoped he’d never have to witness.

“Most of them (the patients) are incubated by oxygen cylinders, but with their eyes they manage to make you understand their emotions and their fears," he tells Maloney.

“I am just trying to replace their relatives who should be there in the ambulance but for obvious reasons they are not.

“I try to comfort them and hold their hand because I would like it if my mother and aunt were in that situation in another city that the volunteer would also treat them as if they were a relative.”

Mbanda, capped 20 times by his country, appeared at Rugby World Cup 2019. While the tournament in Japan seems a long time ago now, the 27-year-old still thinks in rugby terms.

“The first day I was scared; it is an invisible enemy,” a candid Mbanda admits.

“The worst thing of my job is that every time I touch a patient, I have to go behind the stretcher to put the disinfectant gel on my gloves, to try to keep myself protected and safe.

“You just have to be focused on what you are doing, where you are touching, where you are putting your hands.

“You have to go back home to your family members at the end of the day, and you have to be sure not to infect them.

“Like in a rugby match, I just think of my objectives. In this case, to score a try means to save a person or as many people as possible. I hope the end of this 'match' will come as soon as possible.”

Amen to that.

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