Yesterday I emailed a draft of what I think should be in my obituary to our two grown children, who I presume will have the obit responsibility when the time comes. I want to be sure they get everything right. But rest assured, I am not dead yet. But I could be! Here is my story:
It is hard not to think constantly about the Covid Crisis. It–and only it—dominates the television news, the radio, the newspapers, the internet, and every talk show. Every day. All the time. Embry and I wear masks. We keep six-foot distances. We stay out of all stores and order groceries online. We communicate with others via email, Zoom and phone calls. We stay home and sulk wondering if we will ever be freed from House Arrest. We do not know when, if ever, we will be able to hug our grandchildren. We are obsessed.
A recent comment from a friend’s email a few days ago resonated with me. He commented that he wondered when this is all over, which group he would join first, Weight Watchers or AA. Me too. I get it. Yes, these are tough and scary times.
This explains why last week when Embry came down with extreme fatigue, aches and pains– “flu-like symptoms” — we looked at each other and said, “Oh, no!” Actually, that is not what we said; but since my grandchildren might read this, it will have to do. Unlike me, Embry never gets sick. That is not exactly true either since after she had spent time in an African country, she once or twice came back with some weird disease. But a run-of-the-mill cold or flu? Never. This spring, however, Embry has been going to the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington every day during the preceding three weeks for radiology treatments for breast cancer. (She is doing ok and the prognosis is very good.) Sixteen visits to be exact. Guess who else is going to hospitals these days. I drove her to her appointment every day and waited patiently in the car envisioning Embry squeezing her way through crowds of coughing people, some without masks, desperate for help. It turns out that those seeking emergency help and ventilators went to another part of the hospital. But still. The first week of her treatment (early April), she noted that no one was wearing a mask, not even the doctors and medical technicians. It seemed to me she stood a pretty good chance of getting infected. I was certain that her symptoms had to be the dread disease. How else could you explain it?
That was Saturday. The next day I came down with similar symptoms. I staggered to the computer and got on the internet to review the symptoms of Covid-19. The good news was that neither of us had any fever. We still could taste food and smell things, and our toes were not blue or green. We did not have a dry cough. And we could breathe. I practiced holding my breath. Thirty seconds. Was that long enough? But we still felt terrible and had the awful fatigue and body aches that often accompany the flu. Besides, it turns out that the symptoms of Covid-19 are all over the place, and a victim often takes a quick turn for the worse. The truth is nobody really knows for sure if they have it until they get tested or they can’t breathe anymore. By that time, it may be too late. Surely, I thought, our number had come up.
What to do? No brainer. Of course, first you call your doctor. We are members of Kaiser Permanente and have been very pleased with this healthcare system and the care we have received for the last five or six years we have been members. But you never call your physician at Kaiser. You communicate via the message center on their website. When I logged in, I discovered a new warning on the Kaiser Permanente website that due to the Covid-19 crisis, communication with Kaiser physicians would be exclusively via a phone or video conference, and that you had to reserve a spot in advance. My doctor’s name appeared, and I immediately reserved a time slot for the next day, Monday, at nine in the morning.
Monday morning came and went. No call from the doctor. This was very strange since she had never missed following up quickly on emails before. That afternoon I checked back on the Kaiser website and realized that my appointment was for Monday at nine the following week. There were no spots left for this week. That was an eternity away. We both could be dead by then. The website, however, had a solution for patients like us: “If you are ill, dial 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.” Now it is true that there was also a message about calling an advisory nurse, but we did not want a nurse. We wanted a doctor. We wanted our doctor. We wanted our doctor now.
Panic! At least I was panicking. Embry was starting to feel a little better, and I could tell by her look that she thought I might be overreacting. But for me the vision of the typical Covid emergency room immediately came to mind. We have all seen photos or videos of the catastrophic situation in New York City hospitals. Harried, medical personnel running this way and that wearing hazmat suits and masks. Patients, some with masks, others without, leaning against the hallway walls or sitting on the floors patiently waiting for help. People in cars lined up in front of emergency rooms, some slouched over the steering wheel, dead. For some reason the image of Calcutta in the 1930s and 40s came to mind—emaciated people jammed together, lying on the hallway floors in the hospital, dressed in tattered rags, moaning, with flies swarming around them, pleading for help.
The emergency room? Oh, my goodness! It was at this moment that I began to write my obituary. I know that it is not common or appropriate for someone to compose his or her own obituary, but I feared that very important things might be overlooked if left to others. Things like my blog posts and storytelling.
I had experienced emergency rooms in Washington before. A couple of years ago we took Embry’s brother, Mike, to the emergency room at the Washington Hospital Center for them to treat a severe infection. At nine in the morning the waiting room was already packed. By noon the ambulances were lined up with patients waiting to get in. By late afternoon every bed was taken, and patients were on stretchers, packed in the hallways so tightly that you could hardly walk between them. And all that was long before Covid-19. I could only imagine what the situation would be like today. The Calcutta image appeared in my mind again.
But the real issue with emergency rooms is that if by some chance you actually do not have Covid-19 when you go in, you surely will have it when you come out—if you come out. The germs have to be everywhere; and even if you wear a mask, it will do little good under emergency room conditions during the Covid crisis. Why on earth would Kaiser or any other health care provider even suggest in the Covid-19 world that the emergency room is a viable option for anyone “feeling ill” without first being screened by a physician? Other healthcare providers are doing the same thing.
Catch 22, baby. Catch Covid 22! You do not really know if you have the disease until you are tested. In DC and most of the country, you can’t get tested unless you have a doctor’s order. Doctors are so busy they can’t even talk to you for at least a week, let alone see you. In a week you might not be able to breathe. You are desperate for help. So you suck it up and go to the nearest emergency room. You find out it was a false alarm. You only had a common cold. You are relieved. But in the emergency room you are exposed to Covid-19. Five days later you are back again. This time it is the real thing. Anything wrong with this picture?
In our case I am happy to report that it was a false alarm. Embry was better by Tuesday, and I perked up on Thursday. We never talked to a doctor or ventured out to an emergency room. Did we have Covid-19? Probably not, but what we did have was pretty weird; and this is one weird disease.
We were–and are–the lucky ones. But what this experience really brought home to me is what this disease is doing to others who are not as lucky as we were. It brought home to me the fear that they must feel, their desperation, and their despair. I read somewhere that almost half of the patients who do get to the emergency room do not survive if they require a ventilator. More chilling is that those who are hanging on by a thread—or, for that matter, all patients in the ER during this crisis– are not permitted to have visitors. They do not have family and loved ones by their sides. Those who do not make it die alone. Their grieving family and those who are left behind are not able to attend a funeral. All gatherings of more than a handful of people are prohibited by the stay-at-home orders. It is a tragedy beyond description. It is nothing like anyone alive today has ever experienced.
At some point we–I mean “we” as in the human race– will get through this. But we do not have a clue when. Despite the easing of restrictions in some states, it now looks like the worst is yet to come. All we humans can do is hang in there, honor the distancing restrictions as best we can, and gut it out, hoping and praying that we and those we love will be the lucky ones and that at the end of it all, some good will come out of this horror.