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One of several tents prepared for the overflow from the Emergency Department at Hackensack University Medical Center, March 31, 2020 (Courtesy of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps)

Margaret Buchanan, March-June 2020

I am writing this from a remote cottage in Maine. Luckily, my reservation, made in January, wasn’t cancelled. I am grateful to be here, albeit in mandatory quarantine, because I need to recharge. The words of Jerry Garcia flow through my mind frequently: “What a long strange trip it’s been!” It feels long, but it’s only been three months.

Everything changed on March 12—how I think, how I work, how I live. At work in New Jersey, management announced the office would close the following day, Friday. It wasn’t a firing or a layoff. It was COVID-19. As instructed, my coworkers and I reported to the office Monday to collect items at our desks, including our computer monitors, so we could work remotely. We said our goodbyes at an impromptu socially distanced meeting. The time frame given was approximately a week. We all knew better.

Life also changed at the Closter Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Corps (CVARC) in New Jersey where I volunteer with an incredible group of people from all walks and stages of life. When COVID-19 struck many of our members stood down due to personal reasons, health, or age. Making the decision not to respond was difficult for them. Responding in times of need is what we do. Many continued in other ways, behind the scenes.

More than ever, all our friends and family members, especially my mom, worried for our safety. And the fear of bringing home the virus was ever present. It still is.

Early on the corps set up strict COVID-19 protocols for 911 responses and aligned ourselves with the police department, most often the first to arrive on a scene. Little did we know how fast we’d need to use them.

Days later, my night crew got dispatched for an elderly person who had passed out in the local shopping center parking lot. It was early evening and the weather was beautiful. It wasn’t too cold for a March night; crowds were walking about, enjoying themselves, visiting the eateries, catching a movie. When we arrived with the ambulance, the patient was still lying on the ground. Two EMTs from a nearby volunteer agency saw the patient go down and were in attendance. I thanked them for their help and assumed patient care.

I asked the first protocol question: “Are there any flu-like symptoms present?”

The family stated the patient had been released from the hospital a few days earlier—with the flu. The flu. The word set off my inner panic. They may as well have said COVID.

The rest of the new protocols came into play: Put on full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Allow no family members to accompany the patient to the hospital. Limit the crew to two in the back of the rig with the patient—and one driver. Regretfully, I sent two crew members back to headquarters.

The protocols became ever so important for our health and safety in the months that followed. A core group of us continued responding to calls throughout the pandemic. The unspoken mentality was, fasten your seat belts and ride this until the end. In all honesty, it was a very frightening ride—charging into unknown territory that was also unfair because, as the virus progressed, the rules changed almost daily.

The familiar ER staffs changed frequently, too. Doctors and nurses were brought in from other areas of the hospital or out of state. During normal times the entire crew, which could be as many as six people, entered the ER and transferred patient care to the ER nurse. A quick process. For the most part, PPE consisted of gloves.

The new rules were more strict. Upon arrival at the ER, one EMT went inside and gave a report on the patient. Next, only two crew members—the maximum number allowed—brought in the patient. The original request was to have only one EMT accompany the patient. Although that could be done, it was difficult for only one person to navigate a stretcher through the ER. We were required to be in full PPE—gloves, gown, N95 mask, and goggles—and the patient had to wear a surgical mask. Some hospitals had teams at the door who prescreened all who entered—bouncers, so to speak.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the Northern Valley were not as high as those our southern neighbors experienced, but we had our fair share. I’ve been in the back of the rig with some very sick patients and haven’t always heard the outcomes. I could only do our job and hope for the best. My heart goes out to the sick and families who’ve been subjected to this unbearable pain.

It’s time to return to New Jersey; I’ve escaped long enough. I will remember the absolute quiet just after sunrise in Maine and the mesmerizing glitter of the late afternoon sun over the ocean. I certainly hope another wave of COVID doesn’t happen, but I know we are better prepared for the next round.

Margaret Buchanan is a graphic designer and first lieutenant at Closter Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Corps (CVARC). She joined nine years ago with her son, also an EMT. Neither would trade the experience for anything.

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Homemade signs such as this one in Midland Park, New Jersey provide a community feeling when everyone is isolated in lockdown, May 2020 (Photo by Lorraine Ash)

Corinne Carhuff-Pickell, March-June 2020

As a person with mental illness, particularly anxiety, I have literally been expecting a catastrophe for most of my life. Here it is, my very first pandemic.

When we were first quarantined, I thought, I’ve got this. I have coping skills. I’m prepared to thrive through crises. I even started an unpublished blog called Thriving in Quarantine. I was ready to climb up Corona Mountain and proclaim, “I did it and I did it well!”

The first time I wore a mask, I had a panic attack just taking it out of the package. The first time I walked into a store and saw everyone in masks and tape on the floor to encourage social distancing, I panicked and spent four hundred dollars on food. I had no plans to return to the supermarket until this crisis was over. I didn’t hoard toilet paper or paper towels and cleaning supplies. I wasn’t afraid of a food shortage. I was afraid of going back to the supermarket. That was new.

Another change was teaching my daughter while simultaneously working full-time from home. I’ve been a special education paraprofessional for fifteen years. It doesn’t matter how much experience I have or how many certifications I carry. Teaching my own child is the hardest job I’ve had as an educator.

I am not the only mom struggling with being everything for everyone. That’s what super moms do. Normally we must be in twelve different places at once. Now we’re stuck in one place with twelve different jobs and nowhere to escape to, except maybe the car or bathroom for a few minutes.

For the first month, I held it together, though. But when I realized that I wouldn’t be heading back to school to help my students, and this was reality for God knows how long, my resolve began crumbling. My daily life had been working full-time, parenting, and getting to extracurricular activities and appointments. Then there were the domestic demands—cooking, cleaning, paying bills. My life was a circus.

Then COVID-19 came to town and the circus suddenly stopped. I picture the quarantine like a scene in a movie—some supernatural moment when the world around a person suddenly freezes. But in Hollywood stories, the moment passes and the world starts moving again. Not this time. This time the world literally stopped. Businesses closed. Schools closed. People lost jobs. People died and are still dying.

Add managing mental illnesses on top of all that and Corona Mountain can feel like a volcano. Corona Mountain is so big that some days I can’t see myself ever getting over it. Then I remember that I am a warrior and I forge forward. I reach out for help, and I help others. I make myself a priority because my family needs me. The added pressure I put on myself to not only survive but thrive may seem like a lot, but it keeps me climbing. That pressure has brought me to places of peace in my life that I would have never expected. It brought me here, writing this piece to reach others and let them know that if I can do this, they can, too.

We all may not be climbing Corona Mountain with the same gear or facing the same obstacles, but we are climbing the same mountain and we are not alone.

Corinne Carhuff-Pickell is a mom, a survivor, an educator, and a writer. Her Nan, who wrote with her from a young age, still inspires her today.

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Addie’s Observations

Waiting for Good Buys
Shoppers waiting outside in line of a department store due to capacity limitations
May 10, 2020 (Photo by Rebecca Osso)

Karen Rippstein, Spring-Summer 2020

Mom is home all the time, only taking me out for a 9 a.m. half-hour exercise walk, a 4 p.m. shorter walk, and a 10 p.m. quick walk before bed. She appears concerned. I’ll sit close to her while she’s reading or watching TV. Maybe I can catch her vibe.

Most mornings after breakfast, Mom opens a notebook, digs through her supplies of cut-out magazine images and words, assembles them on a blank page, and glues them in place. I’ve never seen her this relaxed. Usually, she’s rushing around to go somewhere in the car. What’s going on?

I stay close by for more clues and bask in the sun by the sliding glass door. She thinks I’m dozing, but my eyes remain focused on her. I hear unfamiliar words—Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, quarantine—when she’s on the phone with family and friends. I notice her hands are no longer soft. She washes them constantly and even sings “Happy Birthday” twice each time. Who do we know with that many birthdays?

Another thing is unusual. Mom watches TV during the day. I hear a man’s voice speaking the same unfamiliar words. I like the man when he says, “We’re in this together.” Mom and I are in sync and I like our secure togetherness. With more TV watching, I lean into Mom on our sofa and get frequent belly rubs and pats. The soft massages on my ears are top dog!

When we’re outside Mom stands away from the neighbors. She doesn’t let me sniff or play with my dog buddies. We socialize but Mom keeps my six-foot leash taut. The neighbors do the same thing. They call it social distancing. I don’t like it.

I miss our in-person family visits that Mom now does on her iPad. We have Zoom meetings with all five grandchildren, Nancy and Maurio in Pittsburgh, Ed in White Plains, and me! The Zoom camera is usually focused on me because Mom doesn’t like her hair with gray roots sticking out an inch or more.

Thinking about hair, my fur is getting straggly. Mom trims around my face and the pads of my feet. I’m a pretty black and silver mini schnauzer so it’s important to keep my eyebrows trimmed so I can see. Mom also keeps my beard short. That way, when she washes and brushes it after I eat, it stays clean.

Mom goes out food shopping weekly. She wears gloves and a mask that make her look alien. She claims her eyeglasses fog up so she doesn’t wear the mask while driving. After she comes home and puts away the food, she sprays inside her car and then the doorknobs to the house. Inside she washes her hands several times. How time consuming, but she smiles at me every time.

“We need to stay safe and protected from the spread of COVID-19 germs,” she says.

I wag my tail. I’m just happy she’s home and she bought me some treats because there’s talk of food shortages.

Once a week Ed visits, which makes me happy. He always brings extra treats. He makes Mom happy, too. They order pizza for home delivery. I love the small pieces of crust Ed gives me when I sit like the perfect little girl. Mom saves extra crusts and freezes them. Later she gives them to our friend Karen for her dog, Keri. Mom loves Keri almost as much as she loves me. One day I have to meet this Keri, who is a collie and bigger than me. Hmm.

After three whole months, Mom finally visited Karen. They sat outside, I heard, because the weather warmed up but they wore their masks until they were ready to eat. I didn’t go along but I’m happy when Karen or Mom’s other friends, Carmen, Jacqui, or Carol, come and sit with Mom on our back deck. Often they get food delivered and share a morsel with me.

The man on TV says the number of COVID-19 cases is finally declining in New York. Mom tells me we’re entering another phase of the pandemic with some things reopening and returning to a “modified normal,” whatever that means. She’s hoping Nancy, Maurio, Sam, and Isabella can visit from Pittsburgh this summer and that we can go to Lexie’s high school graduation in Pleasantville. I’m keeping my paws crossed.

Karen Rippstein is a certified poetry therapist and poet. She teaches writing, poetry, and visual journaling workshops at colleges, spirituality centers, libraries, senior centers, and intergenerational programs at schools. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. She lives in Cortlandt Manor, New York with her muse, Addy Lynn.

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Sign of the Times
Signs and caution tape are posted on a closed Northern NJ playground due to Covid-19 shutdown,
May 10th, 2020 (Photo by Rebecca Osso)

Donna Grahl, September 2020

At first my three grandkids thought it was fun not to go to school. Not anymore.

Much is said about schooling in the time of COVID-19—how teachers are doing, how parents are faring. Those are real concerns. But in our three-generational household in South Jersey, I’ve been looking at the pandemic from children’s point of view.

Even the most basic things concern me. I trust all three to stay mindful with their masks and handwashing but Leo, the youngest, is only seven. So we worry.

For months in the winter and spring, my grandkids learned remotely. The food train was at our house. We ate nonstop in our eight-member household, spending seven hundred dollars on food on our first trip to Costco. We feel blessed that buying food never became an issue for us, but the kids gained weight.

It’s no wonder. We did a few puzzles and crafts together, but they were no substitute for what the kids had planned. For one thing, there was no baseball for Leo.

And the girls, who at first didn’t realize the seriousness of the virus, eventually felt cheated of many school activities. There was no junior prom for Trinity, for instance. The one that hurt most, though, was Brooklyn missing her big birthday concert. School shut down on March 19, the very day she was going to see her idol, Billie Eilish. The show wasn’t cancelled—just delayed, so there was no refund on her $600 ticket. At least not yet.

Even at home, I see the effects of the pandemic on my grandkids. I’ve noticed that Brooklyn, even unbeknownst to her, has been hibernating in her room a whole lot since the virus.

Leo doesn’t like to go to stores, or even outside, much. He went to summer camp for three days and then didn’t want to anymore. So we took him out. He just wanted to be home with us. His mom’s shop closed down so she was home a lot more. Maybe that had something to do with his staying inside.

Heck, the kids refused to even stand on the ice cream line with me! They wanted to wait in the car. All the people wearing masks intimidated them.

When I look at the pandemic from a child’s point of view, that makes sense.

Still, kids are resilient. And we’re grateful for the hands-on experiences we had with them—the wine bottles we painted, the masks we made. It may have helped all of us that we were home together.

Did any kids actually learn during remote schooling, though? I’m sure they did though one local teenager told me the one good thing that came out of this virus for him: he knew he didn’t deserve to be promoted to the next grade, he said, but in the pandemic everyone was promoted, no matter what.

Now it’s fall and different challenges have emerged. The kids are back in their classrooms two days a week. To protect them a little more, we’ve opted not to use the district school buses. Instead we drive them to and from their three different schools. Our schedules revolve around theirs.

Leo finds it difficult to stay engaged with his classes, so a new battle begins every day. Some days he cries. Other days, we cry.

And Brooklyn, though back at school, has found that on her two designated days, she’s the only girl in all her classes. Naturally, she’s withdrawing. I picked her up from school early last week because she was the only girl in gym class and, of course, when it came time to pick sides, no one picked her.

When she called for a ride, she was crying.

Her dad told her gym class is only one day a week for forty-six minutes so she should either tough it out or just go on an all-remote learning scheduled again.

We adults sure have enough on our minds but we’d do well to remember what all this uncertainty and disruption must feel like for the children in our lives. It’s tough enough to be a kid in the best of times. It’s just too tough in the time of COVID.

Donna Grahl, retired from the hospitality industry, is an avid traveler—at least before COVID-19. As a practicing Buddhist for forty years, she is devoted to chanting for peace and happiness for all. Currently, she is working on a memoir.

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