Infectious disease specialist Dr Maria Bogoeva was ready to hang up her scrubs and retire from her post in a small provincial hospital in western Bulgaria when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

A year later, the 82-year-old is still on the COVID-19 front line despite her age, one of the oldest doctors known to still be practising in the country.

She is one of a legion of older medics battling “the horror” of the virus in Bulgaria’s overstretched healthcare system.

“My age? I don’t feel it. I want to work. If I see that I am no longer useful, I’ll bow out,” the energetic doctor says.

The European Union’s poorest member state suffers from a severe shortage of medical staff as young medical graduates emigrate to the West in search of better career opportunities.

So Bogoeva says she has little choice but to stay at the bedside of her COVID-19 patients in the municipal hospital in Dupnitsa, 60 kilometres (40 miles) southwest of the capital Sofia.

To sit at home doing nothing in good health at a time when patients need her expertise the most is simply “unthinkable”, she says.

“Was I supposed to let people die? The hospital had no other infection disease specialist, and this amid a healthcare crisis,” the doctor explains.

Many other elderly doctors across Bulgaria have made the same choice over the past year, some at the cost of their own lives.

Bogoeva’s colleague at the Dupnitsa hospital infectious ward, 15 years younger, feared for her health and retired after the first wave of the virus.

But the octogenarian says she is not afraid to stay on, dressed in a simple surgical mask and a blue overcoat that gets disinfected once in a while.

“They forbid me to approach the patients,” the doctor says, standing at the door of the ward.