‘We’ll be OK’
Looking back on my youth, I remember going with my mother to the grocery store.
As we walked the aisles, she’d stop and talk with nearly everyone she saw, from employees to customers. This process, understandably, took quite some time, and for 5-year-old me, was nearly unbearable.
“Coooome ooon, Mom! Let’s go!”
I would grab her hand and pull and pull, trying to get her to leave. Predictably, that didn’t go in my favor.
Mom was going to do what she was going to do, and I better “Hush up!” and “Behave!”
She never let go of my hand.
Nearly 44 years later — in October, just five months ago — I found myself pulling on her hand once more. This time, I was trying to get her to stay.
For the past year, there hasn’t been a week go by that I haven’t had a byline on a story about the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve watched very closely as the number of infected rose, the number of deaths rising right alongside. I’ve shared the advice of epidemiology experts, analyzed data from both state and local health departments, and interviewed those most affected by this novel coronavirus, from medical professionals to frontline workers, from heartbroken family members to frustrated public health administrators who can’t understand why certain members of the communities in their charge refuse to listen to reason.
On a national level, the numbers of deaths related to the virus is well over 530,000. Worldwide, it stands at more than 2.6 million.
I’m not an expert on viruses, their transmission, or ways to prevent the spread — I leave that to the doctors and scientists who have spent their lives studying such things — but I have had a front-row seat to see the effect of a pandemic on a populace.
At least until a few months ago, when I became more than an observer and found myself playing a role I never wanted.
On Sept. 1, my mother celebrated her 73rd birthday. I don’t know exactly how — I’d been keeping my distance, living in another town, hoping to keep her safe from the pandemic and my frequent, necessary interactions with the public.
I spoke with her on the phone that day, as I did at least once a week, sometimes more. I saw her four days later, as she waved, both our masks firmly in place, from my driveway as she dropped off a box of things she’d found, including some books, kitchen items and a handful of presents.
A few days later, she went to the hospital, complaining of a severe headache and shortness of breath.
A test for COVID-19 came back positive for the virus. She was treated and released with instructions to quarantine and come back to the hospital if her symptoms worsened or changed in nature.
On Sept. 7, she was back in the hospital, this time on oxygen. During a phone conversation with her doctor, we had the most difficult discussion I’ve ever had, covering her wishes if anything extreme happened. I didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to talk about it … I really wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t going to happen anyway, right?
Two days later, as her condition worsened, she was sedated, intubated and put on a ventilator. Just before that happened, she called me. She said, “We’ll be OK.”
And it seemed like we would. She was relatively young, relatively healthy, and in the hands of experienced doctors and nurses who’d successfully treated a number of patients with the virus.
After spending several weeks on the COVID floor, she was moved to the medical ICU.
She was still on a ventilator and had been sedated the entire time, but the doctors and nurses in charge of her care had a plan for weaning her from both.
The best part? I could finally visit her, see her face, hold her hand and talk to her, even if she was still sedated.
Plans were being made to move her to a long-term acute care facility, where she’d be able to hopefully get off the vent and begin what was going to be a lengthy recovery process.
A month after she was admitted, all the plans went south. Her worsening condition had me scrambling, trying to make sense of what was happening.
Her body was failing, various organs shutting down and her lungs, ravaged by the virus, were no longer operating at any sort of acceptable level.
Remembering her strength, what she told me that day more than a month before, I made the most difficult decision of my life.
Off the ventilator, the paralytic, and the multiple medications designed to keep her blood pressure up, she took her last breaths peacefully.
It only took a few moments, making it clear to both of us that the ventilator had been the only thing keeping her alive, a state she made clear she never wanted to be reduced to.
I said my goodbyes and told her I loved her. Just after 8:40 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, I let go of her hand, her last words to me ringing in my ears.
“We’ll be OK.”
Maybe one day, but not just yet.
Truth is, if my mother had made it through, her fight might not have been over. We’re still learning about the virus and the long-term effects it might have on those who’ve been infected. It may be years before we can even understand the true death toll.
A research paper published in the Nov. 10 issue of PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the total reported death toll from COVID-19 actually undercounts mortality since it doesn’t account for deaths indirectly associated with the pandemic, including those who died because they put off seeking health care.
Some people, scared of contracting COVID, may have died of heart attacks or uncontrolled diabetes after putting off going to the doctor. Others — suffering from anxiety and depression from related job loss and financial uncertainty — may have been led to take their own lives.
And then there are the long-lasting effects experienced by those who count among the “recovered” cases. They may have survived the virus, but the damage done could prove insurmountable months or years down the road.
As 2020 came to a close, medical scientists were finally able to develop a number of vaccines for COVID and governments around the world are even now in the process of distributing them. Here in Arkansas, we are seeing the number of new infections fall and the death rate, while still climbing, is slowing down.
The vaccine came a few months too late for my mother, but I got my first shot earlier this month. My second is scheduled for next week.
I’ll be there on time, ready and eager, for myself, for my mother and for my community.
“We’ll be OK,” she said. And we will, once everyone that can gets vaccinated. In the meantime, we need to all stick to the health protocols that got us this far.
One day — hopefully soon — we won’t need them anymore.