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An Upside Down World

Life turned upside down in a matter of days. On March 13, the governor closed schools. My husband and I met friends for dinner that night. We were nervous and opened the restaurant’s door with a Lysol wipe and carried hand sanitizer inside. On March 16, restaurants and gyms shut down. It was my son’s 15th birthday and he almost cried when I didn’t let him go to a friend’s house. We’d promised him dinner at a steakhouse. Instead, we got takeout, and he was too sad to eat cake.

I was wracked with guilt when I went to work that night–entering Maryland’s busiest ER. My son had sworn I was the only parent enforcing social distance. His friends still enjoyed sleepovers and parties. But that night, I intubated my first suspected COVID-19 patient. The medics called ahead and reported a 56-year-old in severe respiratory distress. I had just enough time to don my personal protective equipment (PPE) before he arrived. He was unconscious with dangerously low oxygen levels. When I updated his wife, I told her he might die. She cried when I wouldn’t let her see him. He was a person under investigation–a PUI.  

The following week, the governor shut down inessential businesses. My husband’s cosmetic practice fell into this category, and we immediately lost all his income. I scrambled to pick up extra work. Each subsequent shift, more PUIs arrived. The rest of the department stayed eerily calm; almost everyone else stayed away. 

Our total volume is down, but our patient acuity is ticking up. At change of shift, we ask each other how many people we intubated. We describe the FaceTime calls to loved ones before we place patients on ventilators. We mourn the young man who will likely die. We ration our PPE. Our friends are making us masks and surgical caps in case our supplies run out.

In three weeks, I’ve become my family’s sole income provider. We’re deferring our school loans and have cut extraneous expenses. We work together to homeschool our five children. My husband struggles to keep them quiet while I sleep after my overnight shifts. He’s worried I’ll get sick.

I’m terrified I’ll transmit the virus to my family. I haven’t seen my parents in a month. I change at work and take scalding showers before I touch anyone in the house. I only kiss my children on their foreheads now. They pray for my safety each night. Amen, I whisper again and again.

Rachel Mallalieu
Annapolis, Maryland

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