Last night I dreamt that New York City was gone--that it had disappeared into a billowy horizon. I was walking on some unknown highway and looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but grey-white layers of clouds. No blue sky. No brown earth. No Big Apple. A real nightmare.
I woke to huge snowflakes dropping from the sky. My family is safe. But I am sad and scared. I can taste the fear, and I don't like it.
On Leap Day this year, I was at the beautiful Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Michigan. In the gift shop, I saw a booklet of 30 postcards featuring photos of the park--nature scenes, sculptures, the Japanese Garden, etc. It gave me an idea for a writing project during the month of March. I bought the booklet and every day this month I am writing a short poem reflective of the photograph on the postcard, working my way through the booklet. I then choose a stamp that fits the scene and put the postcard in the mail to myself.
My mom wants to hear my opinion on public transportation. Can she take the subway to see her dentist this week, or should she take a cab? I say to her, "Take a cab if you can afford it, and if you take the subway try getting on a less crowded car. Practice social distancing, if possible."
I first heard about COVID-19 in January. My husband, a fellow physician, read to me about it from a news article. On the third day in a row as he read aloud about the epidemic, I asked him to stop. It was hard to appreciate his daily updates when all I wanted to do was throw up due to the severe morning sickness I was experiencing in my first trimester of pregnancy. After all, it was just in China, right? Too far away to worry about.
On recent flights to and from China, I had two different experiences of isolation and contagion.
Flying over, I was upgraded to business class. Cocooned in our own little fully reclining enclaves, my isolated, entitled fellow travelers and I interacted only with the attendants solicitously serving us. It was self-indulgently pleasant, and with the help of melatonin and a hearty meal, I got seven hours of sleep and arrived feeling like the world should continue to cater to me.
I arrived at Boston City Hospital in 1986 as the new 38-year-old chief of child neurology. I soon realized that many of our tiny patients were dying from AIDS. The pediatric cases were the victims of "vertical transmission," due to their mothers' being infected. There was no treatment. Zidovidine (AZT) was not yet approved for pregnant women or their babies. So the mothers transmitted the virus to their babies and the babies got sick and died.
Looking out at a metal awning, I sit with my view from this hotel room in North Carolina. Do I stay or do I go?
Three years ago, my older son, who was immune naïve and compromised, got a probable viral pneumonia which progressed much like we know coronavirus does into a heightened inflammatory response. He was intubated on day five and died on day sixteen. I know what this looks like.
My younger son has been deployed to Afghanistan for nine months. He was due back to North Carolina yesterday.
Within a week of the news about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, many people panicked and bought all the facemasks off the shelf. Over one of our lunch breaks, my colleague in the immunology department told me she recently sent a box of masks to her mother in New York, because the stores there ran out of masks. My colleague and I agreed that the panicked reaction to the virus in America is laughable. Those affected here would be properly quarantined, and it would take several weeks at least for the virus to fully spread. The countries adjacent to China had many more worries than we did, we agreed.
I'm very sensitive to contagious illness; I have an almost nonfunctioning immune system. Even before the coronavirus, I wore masks on my limited outings and washed my hands often, telling people who were sick to come see me when well. But that's not the story I want to tell.
I grew up hearing about the flu epidemic of 1918--and knowing how contagious disease can affect a family's history. My 26-year-old paternal grandfather died in that epidemic; he left behind his 23-year-old wife and my dad, not quite three years old. This tragedy determined the trajectory of the lives of my beloved grandmother and dad; it left a hole in our family tree that no amount of time could ever fill.
We have entered a period of uncertainty and fear as a new coronavirus infects more people and makes its way around the globe and into our midst.