Into His Arms – Or Not

Sharing the Love
This #WeWillHugAgain yard sign, created by a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania printing service,
appears throughout the New York Metro Area, May 2020 (Photo by Lorraine Ash)

Jean Sheff
May 12, 2020

I hear him as he slides the key into my front door lock. The sound of metal on metal makes my insides lurch, but I swivel my desk chair to face the door. Michael and I have navigated the twenty-five minutes between our homes for four years with a boldness we no longer possess. 

When the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect, we were each in our own homes.  

“Jean, with your autoimmune issues, I’m the worst thing for you,” he said. “I couldn’t bear it if you got sick.”  

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Though I’d been working from home, I’d lost my job because of the virus, just as millions of others had. I was looking at painfully empty days. Yet, he was right. Michael works in the medical field and he’d been seeing patients until our world shuttered closed. Yes, quarantining for two weeks was judicious. 

We called one another two or three times a day. We relied on each other to ease the endless hours. Things were grim. New cautions were issued daily. The rules changed by the hour. If you dared to go outside, you had best suit up like an astronaut walking on the moon. We got skittish and held off getting together for another week, then another. People we knew were getting sick. His aunt and uncle, who lived in a local senior center, were whisked off to a hospital. Five days later they were both dead. With funerals banned, we couldn’t gather to find comfort. Everyone cried at home alone.   

Before we knew it, another several weeks passed. We kept flip-flopping on when to break the quarantine. Where was my bravery? I felt shallow. One night I invited him to dinner for the following day. He called early the next morning. His throat was sore, he said, and his eyes were watering. We cancelled. Paranoia had found a home. A cough felt fatal. I vacillated between feeling ridiculous and not cautious enough. The separation was getting painful. We consulted doctors, friends, and family. No one could reassure us. No one knows what safe is anymore. To get together, we’d have to just take our chances. 

So here we are. He’s arriving for dinner, and I’m jumpy. He creaks the door open, as if he’s afraid, too. I stand. We look at each other. We try to smile. He extends his hand, offering me a dozen ruby roses cradled in cellophane. I want this scene to be different. It should evoke the iconic 1945 Eisenstaedt photo of an impassioned sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II. Or if not that, then why not the scene in countless films and a legion of novels—two amorous people huddled tightly together as the bombs drop around them? 

But in this time of COVID-19, touching is dangerous. I try to will the dread away. Yet fear is insidious. It creeps into every chink in the foundation of my soul. I step forward and take the roses, then open my arms to him. We hug. It feels like there’s a saguaro cactus wedged between our chests. It hurts. I turn my head into his shoulder and grab him tighter. For the rest of the evening we’re careful with each other. After dinner we watch some television and relax enough to hold hands. He rises to leave and we hug again, but we don’t kiss.  

Being deprived of touch feels cruel. In so many ways it sustains me. I miss human contact, from a dear one’s hug to a friendly handshake to a lover’s embrace. With masks shielding us from one another, I even miss seeing the smiles of people I don’t know. But this is the new human condition.  

Later, I get into bed and cocoon myself in the covers. I’m lonelier now than at any time during the seven weeks we spent apart. I turn over, wondering how we’ll come together again. Still, we’re just two. How will everyone in this country, in this world, ever come together again?   

I challenge myself: if I weren’t thinking so much about this, what would I be feeling? I can’t go there. I shut down. An anthem enshrines this pandemic—“We’re in This Together.” Maybe that’s because, as in birth and death, the truth is, we’re in this alone.  

Jean Sheff holds a BFA from Adelphi University. She is an award-winning, New York-based writer and editor. Jean is devoted to her daughter, Juliana, and enjoys teaching Pilates.

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Suddenly Sick

Deaths Soar in New York
SoHo, April 4, 2020 (Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)

Laura Carriere

When the first announcements of a strange new virus called COVID-19 hit New York City’s news, I was working. We allergy/immunology nurses stopped what we were doing and watched the Channel 7 broadcast with fear. At that point in January, the first case was being reported in the United States. I explained to the other nurses that I’d been working in infectious diseases when Ebola hit the US. 

“This feels similar,” I said, noting that Ebola was quickly contained. “We had more deaths from the influenza that year than Ebola itself.” 

We resumed working, hoping this situation would be similar. 

March 15
I wake up with gastric symptoms and a fever. I’d drunk a bit the night before and had Blue Ribbon fried chicken a bit too late, an unusual combination for me. Another nurse I work with, who had shared the meal and drinks with me, wakes up with similar symptoms. As of now, the CDC is only reporting three symptoms for COVID-19—cough, fever, and shortness of breath. I’m already asthmatic and know I have no respiratory symptoms, but I still stay home from work for a week. The symptoms continue. 

March 22
I wake up coughing, wheezing, and short of breath. My fever has spiked again after being absent for a couple of days, so I head to an urgent care center. I explain to the physician there that I was informed the day prior that a nurse and a physician I work closely with tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week and that another physician is awaiting results. He states he feels I have the coronavirus but will not swab me due to lack of testing. Besides, he says, the treatment would be the same anyway—fluids, rest, Tylenol. 

March 25
I wake up feeling like my lungs are working extra hard. My fever has reached 103.7. I contact my director of nursing and the allergist/immunologist I work directly with. Both advise me to head to an ER. I arrive at a hospital in downtown Manhattan just as the Motrin I took is breaking my fever. I know this because I’m profusely sweating. My Albuterol has taken effect as well, as my breathing does not feel as labored. I look around and see patients in worse distress than I’m in, so I know I will not be admitted. I am put on the antibiotic Azithromycin, given IV fluids, and sent home. 

March 27
I am coughing up bright red blood. My chest is heaving with every breath. Neither of my two inhalers is helping and my fever has spiked to 104.5. Both my superiors are now begging me to call 911, as it is clear I need to be hospitalized. I am hesitant because I have never stayed overnight in a hospital before, but I can feel my body shutting down systemically, so I dial 911 and am rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Brooklyn. 

March 28
At 5 a.m. a physician comes to tell me my nasal swab is positive for COVID-19, as I already knew. He then throws me off-guard by asking if I have family in the nearby area. I should call them, he says, and tell them I love them, tell them what’s going on with me. I am so scared, I text my fellow nurses, not my parents, because I want a second opinion and know a shift change is happening in a mere two hours. I am on 15 liters of oxygen and still heaving. My fever remains high and they are not giving medication. They forget to give me an IV until I remind them at 6 a.m. I have now been there for nine hours. At 8 a.m. I’m told I will be moved to the ICU. At 3 p.m., still in an overcrowded Critical Care ER, they tell me there is no bed for me and they need to find another ICU in New York City somewhere. Every hospital they call is completely full. They finally locate an ICU bed in the Bronx, forty-five minutes away. I have to get transferred and the oxygen tank cannot give me the amount I’ve been receiving for the transfer. I am not warned. I only know this from my own medical knowledge. 

March 29
At 12 a.m. I arrive at the Bronx hospital gasping for air, only to be told my ICU bed was given away. I am then put on a newly renovated geriatric psych unit that hasn’t even had patients yet. I am put in a room with no oxygen attached to the wall, just a completely bare room. Not even a trash can. They are trying to find a large oxygen tank for me, as I keep running out. This is not an ICU unit and this is the first time I feel I may die. I don’t sleep. My fever spikes again. I cough up red blood.  

They are not feeding me by 9 a.m. and I last ate on Friday, March 27. I just want cold water. I ask for some. It comes two hours later. Someone in full PPE comes into my room and steals my oxygen tank. I am gasping for air for five to ten minutes. They bring it back. It happens again—for more than ten minutes. I am trying to yell that I can’t breathe, but no one can hear me in an isolation room with no call button. I am choking. I know I will die tonight if I am not moved out off this floor immediately. At 7 p.m. I start to choke on blood. I feel my lungs shutting down as well as my kidneys, my whole body. I press and press the newly made call button. No one comes for over an hour. I know a normal adult’s O2 saturation levels should be 98–100 percent. Mine are now at 86 percent while on oxygen, then drop to 80 percent.  

They call the ICU. I’m rushed down and put in a glass isolation room with all of the ICU physicians and nurses crowded around me. The doctor says he needs to intubate me immediately. I say no. He states they will watch me for an hour and if I can keep my O2 levels above 90 percent, they will not intubate me. I spend an hour staring at the wall, practicing deep, slow breathing while clutching my necklace that stores my only sister’s ashes. I make the decision then and there that my parents will not go to a hospital and pick up another dead child with tubes down her throat. I succeed in keeping my O2 sats above 90 percent, so the staff lets me rest. 

March 30
I wake up to two medical researchers shoving a stack of papers in front of me. They ask me to sign my name to try an IV transfusion for a blinded clinical trial. They state no one will know if I receive a placebo, 200 milligrams or 400 milligrams of a medication called Kevzara, made by Regeneron. I recognize the pharmaceutical corporation, as they make a biologic medication I use daily at work. I’ve personally seen that medication dramatically change patient’s lives. I accept. I receive. I am still considered critical at this point: high fever, diarrhea, dehydration, kidneys not functioning, and labored breathing while attached to an oxygen mask. 

March 31
I feel a bit better. I am not coughing up blood anymore. My fever is lower. 

April 1
I wake up with no fever. I am able to eat a little bit. I am able to talk a little bit. 

April 2
I now know I will not die. No fever for two days. My nurses say I look so much better. Two physicians come in and ask why I refused intubation. I explained my family’s last image of my thirty-year-old sister: she was dead on a hospital bed with tubes down her throat. When I arrived at the hospital back then, I had pleaded with the nurses to take them out of her and to clean the blood off of her so my parents didn’t have to see her that way. They stated that since she overdosed at home and was so young, there would be an investigation and they could not touch her body. That image will be forever embedded in my brain. I told the doctors I would not allow my parents to go through it again. They stated that had been the smartest move because it saved my life. I was the sole survivor of the ICU on the night of March 29. The other five patients who were intubated before me died. They change their “intubate immediately” policy. 

April 3
I can smell again. I am tasting certain foods. I speak with my voice to my parents for the first time. They cry. I don’t tell them that I have no TV or window, that I just watch all day and night from my glass isolation room as bodies are rolled in, code, and rolled out with a sheet over them. I haven’t cried yet. 

April 4
Today I turn thirty-six. My ten girlfriends who I grew up with create a Dropbox video of them and their kids, across the country, singing me “Happy Birthday.” I finally cry. A lot. 

April 5
I am moved to a medical surgical unit, as they have dropped me down to 4 liters of oxygen and I am talking without my mask. Doctors and nurses come into my room to ask my story. I become some sort of phenomenon, mostly because this trial medication saved my life. Today is the first day my medical researcher will admit I did not receive the placebo and was given either 200 or 400 milligrams. She states my markers went up dramatically all week after the IV transfusion I received and the areas of my lungs with damage can be seen improving on my chest Xrays. My arms are bloodied and bruised from twice-a-day blood draws and I am sick of taking so many medications, especially the blood thinner injections to the stomach. 

April 6
They take off my oxygen mask. An hour later they tell me I am having an early discharge. I am not prepared and know they should keep me another twenty-four hours, as per protocol with the oxygen. They state they are scared I will get another infection from the hospital and that I need to continue lying in bed all day while at home. No one sends me home with oxygen and I don’t get a wheelchair. I have to walk for the first time in ten days. I’m so weak. The nurses cheer for me as I leave the unit. I cry uncontrollably.  

On the street I see a nurse who took care of me in the ICU and cannot believe she recognized me with my mask on. We both cry and she states she thought I would never walk out of here alive, as most doctors and nurses have already told me. I take a forty-five-minute Uber ride back to my apartment. I have a bad asthmatic episode on my second-floor apartment stairs. I take my inhaler a couple of times. I run into the shower. My roommate helps me stand as I scrub all the tape and electrode pad residue off me. 

It has taken me more than two months to recover. I am still not at work but hope to be by July. I had to do a lot of breathing exercises in the beginning and was sleeping fourteen to more than eighteen hours a day, due to chronic fatigue and not sleeping for more than three hours straight in the hospital. I am now able to take small walks around the block and not use my rescue inhaler. I continue to read articles about lengthy recoveries from other healthcare providers who also almost died and who, like me, were also immunocompromised prior to getting COVID-19. I have hope and faith I will return to work soon to help the sick people of New York City, the reason why I got into this profession.

Laura Carriere is a nurse working and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has been a nurse for fourteen years and is currently attending a CUNY college to further her education.

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An Unforgettable Ride

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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Climbing Corona Mountain

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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