Updated: Sep 10, 2020
The COVID Granny Diaries
"If Nova were in the hospital in critical condition with the coronavirus, would you let her die alone?," I asked. "No, of course not!," Caitlin answered. "Then why do you think I would let you die alone?," I countered. "That's different!," she answered quickly. Speaking more slowly and looking her in the eye, I said, "No. It isn't." She was taken aback.
Even our children can't know how intense our feelings for them are. I did not realize how strongly I would feel the love and responsibility until I actually became a mother—and I have heard many parents say the same.
That morning, Cait and I were making plans for the various exigencies that might befall us during the pandemic. The shutdown had not happened yet; we were going on the reports from Italy that spoke of triage and people dying alone. I told both my children that if they fell ill, I was coming to care for them no matter what. I intended to be there til the end, if necessary. They both told me not to come. But they had every intention of coming to me.
The whole discussion was moot: within a few weeks, we learned that no one was allowed to come into the hospitals to be with a patient with COVID-19. (I assume they make an exception for young children, but I do not know for sure.)
The horror of anyone dying alone has haunted me. I did not want to be shut out if my children were in danger. And if I were dying, I did not want them to feel the anxiety and guilt I knew they would because they could not come to me.
I was worried, as well, about the health workers who would have to attend to me in that situation, knowing I was being separated from my loved ones while I died. I could imagine the trauma and heartbreak of living through that—not just once, but many times.
This specific occurrence was only one of the fears I harbored for Caitlin, who, as an emergency doctor, was in the thick of it. Also, the first month or so, she was working without the necessary personal protective equipment, except for a mask she had to reuse. At first, the hospital didn't let health workers use masks obtained from outside. They relented about the time some N95 masks I had ordered from China—in a panic—arrived. I took one for me and one for Nova and sent the rest to New Haven with Scott.
I was angry, as well as fearful. Especially without proper safety equipment—and because the Trump administration was so callously mis-managing the situation—I felt that Caitlin was being forced to take an unreasonable risk. She went willingly, of course. ("It's the job, Mom.") But to me, there was a Hunger Games aura about it. Like she was tribute.
Once Caitlin was on the front line, she would not talk about her experience at all. I respected that and did not ask her, though I imagined the worst as a result.
I obsessed over the possibility that she was bringing the virus home with her every night—one of the reasons Nova was with me. Scott was just as much in danger.
The two parents devised a system for Caitlin's returns from the hospital that was much like entering the air lock on a spaceship. He met her at the door of their apartment and handed her clean clothes. She went straight downstairs to the laundry room, stripped and put her dirty clothes in the wash, donning the clean clothes Scott gave her. Then she went right up to the bathroom, where she showered. Then Scott handed her more clean clothes. It worked: despite the constant exposure, neither of them have been sick, after nearly six months.
Eventually, Cait got the right PPE, but I was still a wreck worrying about what Caitlin was seeing and hearing, how exhausted she must be both physically and emotionally. Mentally. Spiritually. I knew the experience would either make her very strong coming out of it—or she would come out permanently traumatized. Or not come out at all.
On April 27, the moment came when I could no longer tolerate the fear. An emergency doctor in Manhattan was so traumatized by treating hundreds of people she couldn't help that she committed suicide.
I immediately texted Caitlin and told her how fearful I was that something like this would happen to her. I sent her the link. "Seeing this scared me so much. I hope and pray you are OK."
She responded within the hour, even though she was at the hospital. She wrote, "I'm OK, Mom. Staying strong" and inserted an emoji of a flexed bicep. Then came a flurry of reassuring photos. One, taken showing the brace on her broken arm, included a sassy posture and the caption "Post-apocalyptic Rosie." I can't communicate how relieved I was and how I loved her for stopping to do that.
There have been many stories on TV and in newspapers featuring the trials endured by health workers. They are taking so many risks for us. And all of them have families.
I wish the media would let people know that the overwhelming majority of the faces on the frontline are female: about 80 percent of health workers in America are women, but that message is not coming through. Indeed, women are 79 percent of the global health care workforce. Yet they are held back and paid less, just as in industries where males are clustered. It's almost entirely women protecting us right now.
For many decades, apologists for unequal pay have argued that men get paid more because their work is more dangerous, difficult, and important than that done by women. I show in my new book that women do equally dangerous, important, and difficult work, but it goes unnoticed when they do.
This is one of those times.
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