For me, the scariest part of the pandemic has been imagining one of my loved ones developing a severe case of COVID-19.
Relatable statement, I know. But I don’t have to try too hard to imagine what being sick like that would look like. I have lived through a similar nightmare once already. My mom, Holly, spent three months in the ICU on a ventilator as she waited for the gift of donated lungs.
While a progressive lung disease like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is different than COVID-19 in many ways, I can think of few diseases that seem as similar in terms of pulmonary failure. Severe COVID-19 cases have a drastic reduction in lung function that so resembles IPF. Shortness of breath, low blood oxygenation, comorbidities of the cardiac system, and systemic symptoms caused by hypoxia can come with both illnesses.
I don’t need to see reports from inside COVID-19 units to know what it is like in there. I can still hear the vent alarms, the IV alarms, the cardiac alarms, the eternal mechanical hum-and-wheeze of the ventilator. Imagining a loved one suffering from a severe case of COVID-19 is not a big thought exercise for me, because I have seen what chronic pulmonary failure looks like.
The only thing I can’t imagine is being unable to be present if I had to go through that again. It was hard to spend days in the ICU waiting for a miracle, but if I could do it over, I would walk into that hospital every day again. It was painful to see my mom suffering, but at least we were suffering together and supporting each other through it.
Visitors are not typically allowed in COVID-19 units. My heart aches for everyone who has said a final goodbye to someone they love through a screen, or not at all. I can imagine the intense longing and pain that must accompany that kind of farewell, as well as how hard it must be to find closure.
I know some people prefer to avoid hospitals and death, but I am not that kind of gal. For my own sake and for the sake of those I love, I want to be present at the end. I felt that way before the pandemic, and even before my mom’s IPF diagnosis. I’m more afraid of missing — and, selfishly, of being missed — than I am of being a witness to suffering. I’m afraid of not getting closure. The pandemic has only made those fears a reality, one that so many people have lived through already.
These thoughts have been on my mind since the beginning of the pandemic. Last February, I watched terrified and outraged family members congregate outside the locked-down Life Care Center on my local news. The nursing home was the first cluster of COVID-19 cases in the United States, and it was only an hour from my house.
Over the last 10 months, my fear has swelled and receded many times. I know that my parents are being careful. My mom hasn’t gone anywhere besides doctors’ appointments, and my dad takes advantage of senior shopping hours when he has to get groceries. They always follow safety guidelines when they go out in public. Otherwise, they keep to themselves. Their behavior tells me that they should remain safe until it’s their turn to be vaccinated.
And yet? I find myself again in a moment of swelling fear. My recent move has taken me to Hawaii, the state with the nation’s lowest infection rates and the most regulated travel, by far. But although I am in just about the safest place I could be, if I need to go home, I would have to travel by plane.
Even before the pandemic, I was more likely to get sick in an airport than anywhere else. I once walked through someone’s sneeze in Seattle (thanks for covering your face, stranger!) and was sick as a dog by Reno — less than three hours later. So, I would definitely not risk going from a seven-hour plane ride right into my parents’ home in the days of COVID-19.
Before relocating, I could have driven south for 12 hours and arrived at my parents’ house. If I carried gas cans, I wouldn’t even need to get out of my car in a civilized area. Knowing that now I can’t travel home without a quarantine on the mainland stirs up all my fear about being present.
I know it’s silly to stress about it when the evidence suggests my parents will stay healthy until they can get vaccinated, but I can’t help it! All I can do is hope that the vaccination program starts working more efficiently and with haste in the coming months, and be grateful that we have vaccines at all.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.
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