Day 26: Gulp

April 20, 2020

For a family under lockdown, we’ve had our share of drama around here.

We’ve discovered we were running a spider nursery; inadvertently got our labradoodle stoned; and held a pots-and-pans-banging birthday celebration on our driveway.

I got sick with something that laid me low for the better part of a month — but I tested negative for the coronavirus. My husband, a physician, had confirmed COVID-19 exposure and just completed 14 days of wearing a mask everywhere he went (he’s fine now). Our 16-year-old daughter has been coughing for eight straight weeks, a round of antibiotics and a clear X-ray notwithstanding.

Every few days, I ask my brother how the family business is doing. My dad started a manufacturing business nearly 50 years ago, and my brother still runs that company today out of a plant in Valencia. Without getting into details, let’s just say things are quieter than in 2008 — and those weren’t exactly the best of times. To round things out, my mom’s partner of 15 years has metastatic renal cancer that may or may not be responding to the latest treatment (scan coming up on Friday — fingers crossed).

So I’ve been keeping my eye on our kids, the dog, my husband, my mom and her partner, the family business, etc. etc. I thought I had it all covered.

Whoops — forgot about my dad.

My father, who is 85 and lives in the Pacific Palisades, had a minor stroke on Friday and landed in a bed at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica. This shouldn’t be a shocking turn of events, given his age. But he does push-ups and sit-ups every day, hikes in the mountains with a gaggle of lady friends twenty years his junior every weekend, and jets off on ski trips to Whistler and the Alps. He still works, at the business I mentioned above, and until the virus forced planes out of the skies, regularly traveled abroad for his job.

As you might imagine, it took some convincing to get him to stop driving up to Valencia every day. He and his wife have continued to avoid both delivery services and asking grandchildren for help buying groceries. Instead, he’s been hitting senior hour at Gelson’s every other week to stock up for the household.

The stroke shook him a little off balance, and more alarmingly, partially paralyzed his throat so that he struggled to swallow. He seems nearly back to normal now, but on Saturday, the hospital staff was sufficiently alarmed to limit him to a saline drip, no foods.

But here’s how indestructible my dad believes himself to be. On Saturday night, when no one was watching, he fished a pack of crackers out of some private stash of his, and ate the contraband in the dark. “I was hungry,” he said the next day. “And it was fine.”

Before he was admitted to the hospital on Friday, he and my stepmother got tested for COVID-19, thanks to my resourceful sister-in-law who set it up through the City of L.A. We don’t have the results back yet. Neither do we know what caused the stroke, thought not for lack of testing (although my husband is an internist, he works at Kaiser, a closed medical system, and so hasn’t been a part of my father’s care at St. John’s).

As I was writing this, I called my dad and found out — no surprise there — that he’s skipping the three days at the rehab home that he was offered, and is heading to his house tonight instead. His balance is back, he said, and as for his swallowing, “I only have to be told something once. They (the therapist) told me what to do, and I did it at lunch today.”

Oy.

Of course, part of the reason he’s not going to rehab is he wants to avoid more viral exposure. And he is meeting tomorrow with his internist.

To listen to him, his health is once again under control and chugging nicely forward. And it’s not like I can do much about anything, stuck here in my house, unable to even visit him when he was alone for four days at the hospital. The nice thing about him going home is I’ll be able to stand on his front lawn and wave at him, which I’ve learned is not nothing.

I’ve also remembered how much I love the sound of his voice on the other end of the phone. It wasn’t available on Friday. It sounded like a truck had dumped a load of gravel on it on Saturday. It was still scratchy on Sunday, but I knew my engineer father was back when he started explaining to me the physics of how blood flows through the heart.

I hated physics in high school. I hated that the only tutor on offer to me was my dad, and that he insisted on explaining physics with calculus, even though I was barely passing calculus and my physics course didn’t include it anyway.

But I’ll take it these days. Crackers and hubris and physics and all.

Day 20: Ironic, Part II

April 14, 2020

At 8 p.m., I published a post about my languid pandemic afternoon, and plopped down on the living room couch to scroll through Facebook.

Thirty minutes later, my husband came in and stood across the room from me. Then he took a step backward.

He’d just gotten a call from work. They’d told him he was at risk for developing the coronavirus, and needed to self-isolate.

It’s a long story, but here is the outline: a patient came into the hospital last week, when my husband was on service, for an illness other than coronavirus. The patient had an emergency on Monday (a week ago yesterday) and received an intervention from my husband as well as other doctors and nurses. Since then, the patient was discharged from the hospital. Days later, he was readmitted with COVID-19, and is now quite ill.

But that’s not why my husband’s colleague called. She called because one of the nurses who also took care of the patient just tested positive.

It’s been eight days since he last had contact with the patient. It seems like an awfully long time to be symptom-free and yet still at risk for getting this disease.

And yet. From now until Sunday, the 14th day since contact, he’s going to wear a mask around the house. Wash his hands whenever he touches anything. Sanitize everything he touches. And he’s sleeping in our daughter’s room. She’s moved in with me.

That’s how this thing is. That’s how this time is. You stop to notice the bloom on the roses, the chirp of the birds in the trees. And then the virus reminds you that’s not the point of spring, 2020.

The point is vigilance. Even when it’s been eight days. Even when you think it’s already made the rounds in your house. Even when you believe he must be immune by now.

Snap on the mask. Wash the hands. Wash them again, and again. Six more days to go.

Day 12: Stiff Drink

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Last night, the five of us logged onto the ultimate Zoom call — 54 members of my husband’s sprawling, mutually-devoted Irish-Catholic clan, crowded onto the screen. We usually only see this group once every other year at Thanksgiving in Scranton, Pa., where the original six siblings of my mother-in-law’s generation grew up (though many of them also get together each summer on Cape Cod).

At times on the call, the cacophony grew so acute that our moderator — clear-minded Priscilla — broke us up into separate “group rooms.” Who knew you could even do that? We were in Boston, and Philadelphia, and a phone-in from a cabin in West Virginia where there is no WiFi, and Chatham, N.J., and the Jersey Shore, and Greenwich, Conn., and Lancaster, Penn., and Aspen, Colo., and Syracuse, N.Y., and Seneca Falls, N.Y., and Mar Vista and West LA and Torrance and Santa Clarita.

I learned that all the liquor stores are closed in Pennsylvania but beer and wine can be found at Whole Foods; that you cannot drive from your Pennsylvania home into Delaware to get said liquor, because you will be turned around at the state border; that here in West LA, vermouth is still on the shelves at the City Target at the corner of Santa Monica and Westgate; and that certain brands of beer have stopped production altogether, which admittedly is ironic in the age of coronavirus.

(I learned many other things besides, including that all 50-plus relatives are healthy and relatively happy, given the circumstances, which is the most important thing of all).

These are tough times, and if alcohol didn’t give me migraines, I’d be joining my friend Susan in figuring out, finally, how to make a proper martini. Marijuana, my balm in college, started giving me coughing fits just about the time it became legal in California.

So stone cold sober, I confront the news. The head of the English government is in the ICU. U.S. health officials say this week will be our Pearl Harbor of death and disease. The City of Los Angeles just begged residents to simply stay home. Even avoiding the grocery store, officials say, would be a good idea if you can manage it.

For weeks, I jolted awake at 5 a.m., unable to fall back asleep. That was particularly annoying when I was sick and trying to get better. Now, I can usually manage to sleep until 6:30 a.m., which is a far more humane hour.

My anxiety, instead, has taken a new form. I’ll be talking about disease symptoms, or even watching a show on TV where death comes up in the plot. Suddenly, I have to cough. My breath feels somehow limited. Maybe I’m nauseous. I panic. It’s back! Or, it never arrived in the first place, but it’s here now!

And then I go, Oh. Right. Vivid imagination.

I roll my eyes at myself.

Today, my husband called me from the hospital. I was in the dining room, working on an article, reluctant to pull away and break the concentration that is particularly hard-won these days. But when I heard the tightness in his voice, I turned away from the computer. A patient coded, he said, and it was only afterward that they realized he might have had COVID-19. They weren’t wearing proper protective gear, because they didn’t know, until later.

What do you say to that?

I said, “You know, I think the virus has already been through our house, and you had it but were asymptomatic. I’m think you’re fine. You’re going to be fine.”

I must not have sounded that calm, though, because when I hung up, my oldest son, who was eating a bagel in the kitchen nearby, looked up and asked me, “Does Dad have it?”

So casual, like it might be a baseball he caught at the kind of game none of us attend anymore.

“No,” I said. “He had a patient who might have the virus who coded, and he wasn’t wearing PPE.”

“Oh,” he said. “Okay.”

It seemed like an inadequately dramatic response. But these are times we live in, it was too early in the day for a stiff drink, and anyhow, as far as alcohol is concerned, I’m the state of Pennsylvania in permanent, reluctant lockdown.

My son returned to his bagel and the Netflix show on his iPad. I swiveled my attention back to my computer and peered at the words on the screen. I tried to remember what I’d been thinking when the call came in and for a moment, the world shifted.

A minute passed. Two. Then I started typing again.

Featured photo credit today to @uttaranatarajan, who is using her COVID-19 downtime in the most productive way I can imagine, recreating art masterpieces with her cat and other reluctant household items. Cat -- he of the truly nine lives -- is Mauricio. 

Day 9: Dread

When my husband told me on Wednesday that the hospital would need him on service, after all, this week, I asked if he’d be on the COVID ward. “No,” he assured me, and because I wanted to, I believed him.

Gullible me. There’s no such thing. There’s only patients. And now, he’s seen two of them. The first, yesterday, was a man in his 60s. My husband thought he probably had the coronavirus, but he wasn’t sure.

The woman today was 58, which happens to be my husband’s age. After he saw her X-rays and listened to her lungs through his stethoscope, he was almost certain her results would come back positive. Then he left the room and called me. I know him well enough to know the sound of him feeling nervous.

There’s a new phrase I can’t get out of my head these last few weeks. It’s like when I had a root canal a couple of months ago and my tongue kept sliding over and over to that one spot, pressing against that temporary crown. Not because it felt good, but because I kept wondering if it would still hurt. It always did.

The phrase is viral load. Two words so spiky with meaning I can neither swallow them nor say them. They refer to the amount of virus one person is exposed to over a short period of time.

“Healthcare workers don’t necessarily have a higher fatality rate, but do they suffer, disproportionately, from the most severe forms of the (coronavirus) disease?” asked Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Columbia University physician, in this week’s New Yorker magazine.

He interviewed, among others, a German virologist named Rik de Swart, who wondered if what we know about the measles virus could also hold true for the novel coronavirus. “In measles, there are several clear indications that the severity of illness relates to the dose of exposure,” he told Mukherjee. “And it makes immunological sense, because the interaction between the virus and the immune system is a race in time. It’s a race between the virus finding enough target cells to replicate and the antiviral response aiming to eliminate the virus. If you give the virus a head start with a large dose, you get higher viremia, more dissemination, higher infection, and worse disease.”

In other words, with enough exposure to really ill people, you can be truly fucked.

Two days into five days at the hospital, and my husband may have already seen two COVID-19 patients ill enough to get admitted. Yes, he was wearing protective gear, but viruses are small and wily creatures. Plus that’s potentially only the beginning of his exposure. There’s all the people he’s seen at the clinic over the last couple of months, since the precautions and the mostly-telephone visits started, but there’s also the patients before that, too. Of course, no one he’s seen has gotten him ill, but we also don’t know how this virus works. Can it build and build in your body, like a tower of Jenga blocks?

These are the questions that come flying like arrows at me when I jolt awake at 5 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep.

But here’s the one that really haunts me: is his load heavier because of me?

I’ve tested negative for the coronavirus, but in the chaotic storm of these early viral days, when we’re still struggling to pin down the who what where and why of COVID-19, a negative result turns out to be less meaningful than your symptoms. There are so many ways that a test can miss the virus. From what my husband and another physician friend of mine tell me, that is particularly true of the sputum test I took.

Anyway, four days after I got my test results, I’m still in bed half the day. I’m getting better slowly, but still unevenly — two good days, followed by a bad day or two. All of my symptoms — the fatigue, the headache and body aches, the chills and cough that are mostly gone now — track closely with those of the virus. All three of our kids eventually got minor versions of my illness. Only my husband has stayed well.

On the one hand, when I call what I had the coronavirus, I breathe a sigh of relief. Phew — that’s in my rear view mirror. No more worries about fever, breathing, ICU for me. I wear a mask out walking the dog (my only outings in this still-recovering time), but I also consider myself (tentatively) done.

I read somewhere that in Italy, 20 percent of all healthcare workers got sick with the coronavirus. That means 80 percent did not. I’m hoping that whatever we had in this house gave my husband a leg up on the infection. His body had a chance to see it, build its defenses, figure out how to efficiently shrug it off.

I hope I never have occasion to berate myself for not wearing my mask enough, for not spraying enough Lysol, for not scrubbing my hands long enough, with enough soap.

I’m so proud of him every day. He’s scared. He knows all about viruses and loads. But he keeps going to work, keeps seeing patients, keeps providing care. Like medical assistants and EMTs and techs and nurses and other doctors, he makes this choice each day that potentially brings him face to face with the enemy. Meanwhile, until I got sick, I wore a mask to Trader Joe’s and left with a pounding heart.

Still, this whole situation is unimaginable. I didn’t marry a soldier. I married a doctor. I didn’t know there would be a war that would put him on the front lines.

I’d like to report that I’ve found some way of using meditation or prayer or even long hot baths to banish my worries. Mostly, though, I just pretend this isn’t happening. Until I get those calls from the hospital. Then pretending becomes a lot harder.