When a nurse informed me of my dad’s positive test, I struggled to believe what I was hearing. I went blank. Numb. I’m going to be a 29-year-old orphan.
“He’s going to die.”
Those are the words I kept repeating to myself in mid-November the night I learned my father had contracted the novel coronavirus that had already killed 250,000 Americans.
My dad is 67, immunocompromised, and disabled. He suffers from chronic kidney disease and a neurological disorder, has a history of heavy smoking and drinking dating back nearly five decades, and has about half-a-dozen other markers that make him high-risk for COVID-19. He’s been hospitalized more times than I can count over the past two years—including a stint in the ICU that saw him intubated on a ventilator for two days.
On paper, he is the exact sort of patient you’d expect to fall extremely ill with COVID-19, and perhaps even die. And since the beginning of the pandemic in March, that’s what I thought would happen if he were to contract the virus.
Sort Fact From Fiction: Sign up for COURIER’s Newsletter
This fear was so great that when the pandemic began, I felt paralyzed about whether to ride it out here in Los Angeles, where I live, or move home to New Jersey for the second time in as many years to care for my dad. It was an impossible decision. I worried that even boarding a plane to fly home would pose a threat to my father when I saw him again. But then there was also the guilt of not going. My father lives alone and on the best of days, he is still chronically ill and experiences significant pain.
If I didn’t move home, the odds of him landing in the hospital for something other than COVID were still high. Even if he didn’t contract the virus, he could still die, and I’d miss the opportunity to see him in person. I worried that if he got sick while I was on the other side of the country, I’d join the ranks of those who’ve had to say goodbye to their parents via an iPad.
Ultimately, I made the agonizing decision to stay in California. I was so worried that if I went back, I’d infect my dad. I can’t be the one to kill him, I thought. I ensured my father had everything he needed from afar: food, medication, help, and as much love and support as possible. I thought I was making the best choice to protect both of us.
Despite my efforts to protect my father, he still contracted COVID-19. I can’t be certain how he got it, but I know that at least once, he slipped up: He let an old co-worker visit him in his apartment earlier in November without wearing a mask. Then, on Nov. 18, he was taken to the hospital because he was experiencing acute kidney failure. Upon admission, he tested positive for COVID-19.
He was one of more than 4 million Americans to contract the virus in November. His is just one story in a nation full of them. Our journey, however, is a cautionary tale, and shows that you and your family can do almost everything right and still contract this virus. All it takes is one slip-up.
And there’s nothing that prepares you for what that feels like.
‘He’s Going to Die’
When a nurse informed me of my dad’s positive test—which inexplicably didn’t happen until two days after his hospital admission—I struggled to believe what I was hearing. I went blank. Numb.
He’s going to die, I thought.
The nurse told me he was feverish, fatigued, disoriented, and had a “wet cough.”
The voice kept growing louder in my brain: He’s going to die. I’m going to be a 29-year-old orphan.
As a reporter, I’d written about the virus for months as something of an abstract entity. I knew how dangerous and horrible it was, but I’d yet to be personally impacted by it. That all changed when my worst fear came true.
My dad is the best person I’ve ever known. Our relationship has grown more complicated due to his illnesses and the toll they’ve taken on both of us, but I owe everything to him. When I was two, my mother passed away from leukemia, leaving my father to raise me as a single parent. He worked his ass off to provide for me, often at his own expense.
Over the past two years, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the idea of losing my only parent. He’s already had two near-death experiences before his COVID diagnosis, so the thought of his mortality isn’t a foreign one to me. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less difficult or painful.
I struggled to sleep the night I learned of my dad’s diagnosis. The following day, I called the hospital. And the next. And the next. I got updates from his doctors and nurses. I signed up for online alerts for his test results. I absorbed as much information about his status as I could. His fever had gone away. He was more oriented. But still, his cough remained and X-rays of his lungs showed inflammation indicative of COVID-related pneumonia.
Again, I was certain he was going to die. I began mentally preparing myself for that horrific moment. This is how my brain copes with trauma and uncertainty—I try to plan my way out of it. I thought about what I might say to him if it really was the end. I grew nauseous as I realized I’d have to break the news to everyone else who loved him. I dreaded having to call his mother, my grandmother, to break the news that her oldest son had died before her. I cycled through all the what ifs in my head, as I waited for him to take a turn for the worse.
Except, he never did. Finally, a few days after I learned he had COVID, I connected with my dad. He was oriented, stable, and in good spirits. Even though he had an ugly cough, both he and the nurse told me he was doing okay, all things considered.
I was relieved, but also stunned.
He ultimately spent about a week in the hospital and some time in a short-term, sub-acute rehabilitation facility, before returning home. I feel very, very lucky that my father survived his battle with COVID. He could have easily been the one out of every 110 New Jersey seniors killed by COVID-19.
Others, however, won’t be so fortunate.
COVID Is Everywhere Right Now
As the holidays approach, millions of Americans are being forced to make a similar choice to the one I made earlier this year: do they travel to see loved ones, perhaps for the first time all year, or do they stay at home and continue to isolate as the pandemic spirals out of control?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have warned against traveling and gathering during the holidays. But after nine months of solitude and stress and a catastrophically negligent federal response, fatigue and loneliness have set in. People miss their families and want a slice of normalcy. They want a break from the nightmare. I get it.
But the fact is, this virus is everywhere right now. More than 3,200 Americans died of COVID-19 on Thursday, surpassing the death tolls of both Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, the fourth such time that’s happened in the past two weeks.
My county of Los Angeles is currently home to one of the nation’s worst outbreaks. We’re registering nearly 15,000 cases per day, and more than 5,500 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 here. ICUs are at max capacity in Southern California, with 0% availability, even as the surge is expected to get worse in the coming weeks.
Nationwide, things are so grim that the US could reach as many as 391,000 deaths by Jan. 9, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those numbers are beyond my comprehension. It’s a staggering level of death. Each one of them a person with a story. A father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister. Each one a life snuffed out by this virus and our government’s failures.
In the amount of time it takes you to read this story, another 10 Americans will have died of the virus. My dad could have easily been one of them.
I’m so grateful he wasn’t. I’m deeply thankful to the doctors and nurses who cared for him, ensuring I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to my father over an Apple device.
But so many others will have that experience.
That is the reality of living in the United States in December 2020. Our government has abandoned us, leaving thousands of us to die in hospital beds, scared and alone.
So we must take care of ourselves and each other. We must do what we can to protect our families, our communities, and maintain some semblance of sanity and humanity amidst this nightmare.
As awful as the past nine months have been, there is some good news: We have two vaccines and tens of thousands of Americans are being inoculated every day. We just need to hold on a little bit longer and do our best to carry each other through this.
This may mean making sacrifices and not traveling or seeing family for Christmas. As gut-wrenching a decision as that may be, it’s also unquestionably the safest choice. Again, all it takes is one slip-up for you or someone you love to get infected.
And just because my dad survived doesn’t mean yours will.