Last weekend, as I was winding down for a book-in-bed Saturday night, I received a call from a caregiver at my mom’s assisted living facility: She had fallen and hit her head, it was bad, and she was being sent to the ER in an ambulance.
“I’m on my way,” I said, without a second thought. I grabbed my journal and water bottle, a calm kit for hospital visits. Between caring for my uncle with dementia and my mother with Parkinson’s, I’ve been to the emergency room at least two dozen times in 4 years. I’m used to it by now.
As soon as I pulled up, I could tell this time was different. For starters, I had no problem finding parking. The lot was empty, save for the first two rows of cars. As I walked to the entrance, there were signs galore: No visitors. Watch for coronavirus symptoms. Please ask for a mask.
“Hi, I’m here to see my mother. She arrived by ambulance,” I told three nurses standing guard outside.
“I’m sorry — no visitors allowed,” they said.
I held up a manila folder of legal documents. “I’m her power of attorney. She’s unable to make medical decisions for herself.”
The nurse in charge nodded. “I’ll be right back,” she said and walked inside. As I waited, my attention turned to the right, where I saw a beige shelter made of plastic, about the size of a party tent. The entrance was shielded from view.
“What’s that?” I asked another nurse. “You don’t even want to know,” she replied with a laugh.
Shortly after, I was approved to go inside. The waiting room chairs were all empty, and the emergency ward was eerily quiet. It was doctors, nurses, security guards, patients, and… me. The odd one out.
“Don’t worry,” said a nurse, warmly. “Everything is wiped down after every patient. You are one of the few visitors who’s been allowed to come inside since the outbreak. Here, take this.” She handed me a face mask.
In the next 5 hours, while my mom went through routine tests and I caught a glimpse of what it was like on the front lines, I had a lot of time to think about what we can learn from the coronavirus.
If you’re like me, in the low-risk category, it can seem like COVID-19 is a thousand miles away. Since the start of the outbreak, I’ve been weirdly confident that I would be fine if I ended up contracting the virus.
In my 31 years on Earth, I’ve survived tuberculosis, swine flu, and a life-threatening blood infection. Surely, if I caught this, I would survive it too, right? I’ve been cautious enough. I’m not worried. It’s all good.
But when my disoriented mother tried to pull out her IV for the fifteenth time and the nurse suggested I hold her hand down, I realized she was the first person I had touched in weeks. Even with my newly washed, latex-covered hands, I felt a wave of responsibility.
If I was a carrier, she might be exposed. Had I recently stood near someone in line? Had anyone coughed around me? Had I washed my hands after each trip to the store?
Even though my age group is statistically more likely to survive the virus, I was equally certain that people like my mom and my uncle, sadly, would not. And that’s what officials mean when they say “It’s not about you.”
Kyle Briggs, PA-C and an advisor to Healthline Media, who works in the ICU with the sickest patients, pleads, “We don’t get to control who comes through the doors, or when. […] What controls who comes through our doors? Many things. Among them: You do. You, my friends, are on the front lines. Not me.”
“You, and everyone like you, are playing a role in how this virus spreads. Extreme measures have been taken to try to slow this process across the world. The front line is everywhere.”
As we all start to go stir-crazy in the coming weeks, please don’t let your guard down. Until we get more information, keep taking the necessary precautions. Your loved ones depend on it.
Speaking of precautions, there’s a difference between being informed and being inundated, the latter of which, as we’ve seen, can lead to paralysis or panic (hello, toilet paper apocalypse). Though they’re seemingly opposite forces, these extreme responses are equally destructive.
First, let’s talk about panic. Being glued to the media might give us the illusion of being more prepared, but the prolonged stress from round-the-clock stories and disturbing images can actually lower our immune system responses, making us less prepared than ever.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the info overload is already wreaking havoc on your emotional and physical well-being. It’s a clue that your sympathetic nervous system — aka your fight-or-flight response — is activated and working overtime.
For now, maybe adopt Tim Ferriss’ “low-information diet.” Get only the intel you need and nothing more. An hour-by-hour rundown of each new death, economic dip, or supply shortage isn’t necessary. Press the power-off button, take a deep breath, and return to equilibrium.
Stay calm for the benefit of your loved ones, who may follow your example.
Up until this weekend at the hospital, I was one of those people who would say, “I’m fine. Everyone is overreacting.”
It’s a legit survival instinct (just like panic), but by pretending we’re peachy-keen, all we’re doing is building up walls between ourselves and other people. We’re already in isolation — we don’t need that too. Let’s all recognize that there’s no shame in feeling the world’s undercurrent of anxiety. It’s completely normal.
You’re not a hero for pretending it isn’t there — you’re a hero for admitting it is.
During these strange times, in our runs to the grocery store and gas station, let’s abandon our conventional greetings and platitudes. Instead, make real eye contact with the person behind the counter and say, “Thank you for being here.”
By the time my mom got the all-clear to return home, I was struck by the warmth of each worker we encountered. It was a far cry from the type of treatment I was used to: swift, efficient, a little bit flat, almost like we were inconveniencing the doctors with our very existence.
During this visit, each staff member spoke to us in a calm, friendly manner. They asked us multiple times if we needed anything. They explained each procedure in detail. They smiled — a lot. No one has ever offered me a sandwich at the hospital before, but it happened this time.
Geez, I thought, does it really take a pandemic to remind us of our natural instincts?
A crisis brings out the worst in us, but it can bring out the best in us too. Check up on your neighbors, shop in consideration of others, and reach out to friends in need.
Smile more than you normally do, wave at strangers, and leave kindness in your wake wherever you go. We all have the potential to create a ripple effect and keep it going — long after the coronavirus.
Hilary I. Lebow is a health journalist with fitness and nutrition certifications through the Yoga Alliance and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). When she’s not working, you’ll find her playing on the beach with her two dogs or exploring around Miami, the beautiful city she calls home. Read more of her work here.