Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Our Quarantine Chronicles

No idea where to start with this but it's been such an unexpected, emotional experience that I know I'll want to look back on it.  I also know I've already forgotten so much ... the first few weeks were a whirlwind of panic .... So here we go.

Part I:  Spiral Into Darkness

It was a Friday morning, January 24th.  I had woken up in one of my favorite places on Earth, the first day of our annual 3-day ski trip to Sugarbush, Vermont.  We had finally gotten the kids settled in ski school and were just sitting back down to quickly get some work done before hitting the slopes ourselves.  Checking my Facebook messages, I noticed one from my friend Lindsey.  She was writing to me and our other two close friends; we co-admin a doctor spouse group on Facebook and the summer prior had done a girls trip together in Tennessee.

What she said alarmed me - she said that her husband, who was just finishing up a fellowship in pulmonary critical care (so a sub-specialist lung doctor for critical cases) was really concerned about a new virus out of China, and that he was not one who was prone to alarmism - quite the opposite.  In fact, she went so far as to advise the three of us to buy masks, specifically, N95s, and to consider stocking up on food.  My stomach sank.  Lindsey is one of my smartest friends and also very no-nonsense.  She wasn't prone to alarmism either.  I told Mark about it and he shrugged - there really wasn't anything we could do about it at that particular moment.  Might as well enjoy the rest of our trip.

But the worry lingered, and the more I heard from Lindsey the more concerned I became.  The problem with this virus (vs SARS and MERS) was that it it had a long incubation period during which people could be contagious without knowing they were sick - this would make it impossible to contain.  She also said China seemed to be heavily downplaying the crisis, because Chinese citizens were tweeting videos that showed frantic building of massive hospitals with rows and rows of beds... and physicians falling sick and dying.  A case study out of China provided to her husband concluded  that the disease had the potential for neurological impact - one medical student who had it had to be kept awake or she would stop breathing.  Meanwhile, even mainstream news coverage in the U.S. was disturbing.  Bleak and dismal images of a total lockdown, with accounts of Chinese citizens pretty much imprisoned in their own homes.  Anyone who WAS out and about seemed to be wearing full on hazmat attire.  It all seemed terrifying and apocalyptic, but at least it wasn't happening here... maybe it would never reach our shores?

I attempted to warn friends about the situation but was pretty much disbelieved by everybody.  I was accused of "spreading mass hysteria" and even "xenophobia" - more than once - just for considering it a real threat we should prepare for.  But nobody gave me what I considered to be any good, scientific reason to believe it couldn't come here eventually so I went about lightly starting to stockpile my favorite nonperishables.  I never did grab any toilet paper (thankfully we had plenty).  I checked Amazon for the N95 masks Lindsey's husband had recommended but they were all sold out.  I thought about heading to Home Depot but someone online said they should be reserved for health care workers, plus, on social media they were deemed a sign of racism (even though actually, the only people I ever saw wearing them in my area at that time were Asian themselves).  I was **so** naive at that point, it didn't even cross my mind that my husband, a lab guy, could be one of the workers lacking these masks and that within a matter of weeks I'd be scouring the internet for them, losing sleep over the studies showing that health care workers were at a much higher risk of death due to their high viral load exposures.

Still, everything else around me seemed normal during those early February weeks.  We continued eating out and doing everything else we would normally do.  One strange and ominous day, an acquaintance told me that her daughter's Chinese school on Saturdays had been canceled indefinitely, due to fears of the virus.  This was troubling - did they have reason to believe it was already here or could be at any moment?  I asked around and was told (by Asian friends) that it was culturally Asian to just be extra prudent about things.  Another friend told me her in-laws, who were Asian themselves, were no longer going to Asian restaurants - something I had been looking down on other people for not doing (IMO, indoor dining at that point was either safe or it wasn't, and the type of restaurant made no difference).  This really wasn't adding up for me.  As much as I didn't want to believe everything was true and we were doomed, I found it equally implausible that Asian culture was (according to Asian friends) basically being paranoid - when they were the ones who seemed to be following the science that to me showed no reason to believe it couldn't come here.  Absolutely all signs were pointing to this being a true and imminent threat.

Soon enough, it broke out in Italy.  To our shock, Italy also started shutting down.  The beautiful northern region we'd just visited seven months earlier for a hematology conference was devolving into what from all accounts sounded like hell on Earth.  People suffocating to death because there weren't enough ventilators. Those who did get ventilators dying alone, with no chance to say goodbye to loved ones. Physicians out of masks, out of gloves, getting sick and dying.  Bodies being hauled off by the truckload and stockpiled in churches.  Ultimately, everyone over the age of 65 was denied care because there weren't enough beds and ventilators to go around - spiking the fatality rate to over 8%.  To my sheer and total horror, as this was happening there, cases started popping up in California... Seattle... New York... and then Boston.  One day in early March, Italy rush-graduated all of its medical students to help with the crisis - truly, every single day there was a new bombshell of jaw-droppingly horrifying news.  Then cases started popping up just miles from us in Arlington and Cambridge - kids whose parents had been at the Biogen meeting; the parents had self-quarantined but the kids had not.  I started cringing at the touch of my kids' backpacks, homework, and lunch boxes.  I started being afraid to snuggle them goodnight.  The rate of spread was exponential and we kept seeing those bell curves and knowing we were ON one - it felt like we were living in a ticking time bomb.  New York physicians began sounding alarm bells similar to Italy's - concerns of care being rationed.  The top medical journal in the U.S. (NEJM) published guidelines for how to ration care once the systems were overburdened.  I was terrified that my asthmatic symptoms, which are triggered by upper respiratory illnesses and had been severe - lasting months, and including weeks of not being able to breathe without coughing in spite of multiple inhalators - meant I was a goner, or would at least need a hard-to-find ventilator, if I was exposed.  Mark had been scheduled for 6 weeks of COVID care backup pending the now-expected "surge," and I worried that even he wasn't bulletproof if he were to get a high viral load exposure due to lack of PPE.  We looked into alternate living situations for him.  Finally, I could stand it no longer.  I did one last trip to the store and pulled my kids out of school.  Things were changing so quickly that the day I pulled them out, most people thought I was crazy.  Fox News had relegated the entire story to a sidebar, and was pushing the idea that the seasonal flu was the real worry.  But a little over a week later, our schools were fully shut down.  I knew they'd never reopen that spring, and I wondered what would happen the following fall.

Part II:  The Strange New Normal

Shortly after I pulled my kids out and hunkered down, I started feeling an immense relief.  I still had a few days where honestly, my anxiety was so high that I could barely function - the only thing that helped was riding my Peloton HARD, but I could barely breathe getting started on it because I was essentially living in a state of a panic attack.  But once my kids were home with me, and especially once I got through to my parents and convinced them they HAD to stay home, things felt much more in control.  At that point, the only "study" we had showed that the virus could live up to 3 days on plastic so I was spending 45+ minutes washing every grocery that came into the house.  It was exhausting and annoying but it seemed a small price to pay for safety.  Our apartment also left a LOT to be desired in terms of space for a family of 4 to be inside of 24/7 - we literally had no yard at ALL - but that too seemed a small price to pay - my kids seemed to understand the seriousness of the situation, and other than a meltdown Claire had one day, they never complained.  I purchased rollerblades for each kid so that we would have a way of getting outdoors that did not involve climbing on a structure with other kids, which was still allowed but felt unsafe.  Soon, however, blading on the paths also didn't feel safe... because we were passing people (this was before masks were mandated).  It is remarkable to look back on how we discovered a large, vacant parking lot near our home and it felt like SUCH a treasure at the time.  I also recall that food was strange.  I dropped 5 lbs during the last half of February and the first half of March, because I physically could not eat.  Then once I relaxed I gained all 5 back making our favorite comfort foods like mac and cheese in the instant pot, Mark's college coach's wife's famous baked beans with bacon drippings, and what Matthew would ultimately deem "quarantine cake" because I made it so many times (this cake with the icing from this recipe - SO GOOD).  Eventually, though, nothing sounded good ... I still don't know if each food took on a PTSD-element of being associated with trauma, or whether it was just that the selection on Amazon Fresh was sparse and carting groceries felt like a video game (going to the store was OUT of the question for us for 2+ months; we were at the mercy of online ordering but it was constantly overloaded and it would often take me several days to get a checkout spot - flour, eggs, butter, and even milk became HARD to come by).   

My lifelines at this time remained my closest Facebook friends, and thankfully included a friend who is a HR executive in Mark's hospital system... there is no way my sanity would still be intact today if not for her letting me know what was happening.

... and that's where this blog entry stopped!  I wish I had continued it last year but I got busy and distracted. The Cliff's Notes are:  
  • Shortly before the surge **really** hit Boston and our obituary sections soared to 16-18 pages long, our then-governor Charlie Baker finagled a private flight (using the Patriots' plane) of PPE gear for our health care workers.  This was possibly the most relief I have **ever** felt.  We did end up rush-graduating medical students to join the "front lines," but miraculously we flattened the curve before Mark's six weeks were coming due and I never really had to worry about him bringing it home to us.
  • During the pre-mask mandate, pre-vaccine time where it didn't feel safe to go to the store, I bartered and traded with friends and at one point ended up with like 72 eggs in my refrigerator.  I also procured what I thought was a lifetime supply of Dröste cocoa powder (I was so worried they'd run out of it) - but managed to use it up, ha! 
  • One casualty of Covid was rhythmic gymnastics for Claire.  The classes went remote and they were two hours long - WAY too much for a 7 year old; I heard stories of other teammates crying through them, and I just couldn't force her to do that.  Matthew's karate classes were fine remote; they were 45 minutes.  I eventually got Claire back into regular gymnastics doing the XCEL team and she has thankfully been very happy with that, but rhythmic is such a fun and beautiful sport, I will always mourn this loss.
  • We bought a house!!!  After about four months quarantining in the top half of our two-family apartment (no yard access), it was an incredible relief to move into our new home.  Once we got serious about it, our favorite way of getting "out of the house" was actually walking over to see it, as it was about a thirty minute walk each way and there was nothing else to do.  The night we moved in, Matthew surprised everybody by immediately setting up grow lights (he'd had Mark order for him) and getting WAY into gardening!  He read all kind of books, watched all kinds of videos, and grew all kinds of produce.  The first thing I did was buy an inflatable pool for the kids.  That summer was incredibly blissful, enjoying having a basement, an attic, and a yard.  We started feeling comfortable getting takeout.  We enjoyed **lots** of bike rides to Honeycomb Creamery in Cambridge.  Mark was working from home and most nights we did a family walk around the reservoir in the evening.  The kids absolutely LOVED this time in their lives.
  • The kids went back to "hybrid" school in the fall, which I felt unsure of at first but pretty quickly felt pretty safe about - the kids in our area are great about masking, and mandates are enforced successfully.  Halloween was nice - everybody went all out because we knew we'd have fewer visitors, and the kids did fewer houses too, so it was fewer treats but good stuff.  I'd love for it to always be that way, instead of the mad dash for WAY too much candy!  
  • Vaccines came out for adults that winter and into the spring!! School here went back to full days, masked.  I felt quite safe about things by then; our "test and stay" program showed Covid wasn't really spreading in the schools plus, adults were vaccinated and I didn't consider the risks posed by Covid to my kids to be statistically worth continued angst.  
  • That following summer we finally got to see my parents again; it had been 1.5 years.  It was absolute heaven; I hate all the time we gave up with them, knowing how limited their time left may well be (especially with a recent diagnosis for my dad), but it **was** better safe than sorry before adults were vaccinated.  We took them on a day trip to Cape Cod, dinner at Café Nuovo in Providence RI, and up to Bar Harbor, Maine for a few nights (unfortunately it was blisteringly hot).  
  • That fall, Delta started hitting and mask mandates returned.  My family snuck in a trip to Universal for my dad (he had turned 70 and always wanted to see the Harry Potter stuff) before Omicron started hitting late fall.
  • Mark was assigned to work the holiday block, and so I got to host my parents for Christmas.  I went all out making my the most magical holiday food:  Cinnamon/cardamom rolls, egg bake, and fruit salad for Christmas morning.  Rib roast, mashed potatoes, and pear/squash soup for Christmas dinner.  Homemade lasagna frozen in advance.  Braided Swedish cardamom bread frozen in advance. I even tracked down the veggie-beef soup my dad had mentioned over the years, that my grandmother used to make, and we had it with cranberry-nut bread - it was delicious!!  Plus all my favorite cookies:  Chewy ginger molasses cookies (Matthew's faves), Korova cookies (these are incredible - be sure your flour is light and fluffy, fluff with fork if necessary, not compact - or you'll have too much flour in them), and soft sugar cookie cutouts.
As I sit here typing this in January of 2022, the future feels very uncertain.  It doesn't seem feasible for anybody to completely avoid Covid in the long run, so I am just hopeful that our vaccines will protect us from the longterm neurological effects reported by people with long covid (loss of smell, taste, fatigue, memory).  I am pretty convicted that for **my family**, the risks of continuing in a social-distancing mode outweigh the risks of covid that again, seem unavoidable regardless.  Even being now in a top district in the #1 state for education, both of my kids slipped in the 2020 school year; they were ultimately able to make it up but I really worry for kids with parents who don't have our same resources - to say nothing of kids in districts that didn't fare as well with virtual learning.  My personal view is that this sacrifice was necessary in 2020 to protect human life before vaccines came out for adults, but it cannot be continued indefinitely which is what it would take to avoid Covid permanently.  I realize some families may never feel safe enough from Covid to go on with normal life and I really feel for families in that situation.  I hope the state will provide an actually-good remote only option for families that cannot afford any Covid risk; I understand there are some charter schools that existed pre-covid and were fully vitual that were actually great schools - it seems like this should be explored both for families with covid fears as well as for families whose kids actually do better with remote learning.  

I'm just wrapping this up as quickly as possible, mainly having wanted to get the big stuff down before I forget.  Here are the pics!

Seven months after we visited for a hematology conference, this region of Northern Italy became a hellscape involving streets lined with freezer trucks and bodies stacked in cathedrals.  The major PPE shortage left even young, healthy hospital staff sick and dying from large viral loads.  Ultimately, care was denied to everyone aged 65+ due to not enough ventilators.

That last good ski trip in January 2020, on which we first heard the news.

Last social outing - Mona's century Peloton ride!
(At this point, I felt like the virus could be anywhere)

Last meal out.
This was the last truly good food we had for a LONG time because even once we were comfortable doing takeout (half a year later), the takeout was never **that** good.

Virtual tea party with Papa during the 1.5 years we couldn't actually see them.

Creating new spaces in our apartment, for quarantine.

Playing lots of Monopoly

Quarantine trend:  Thin layer of cream cheese, avocado, egg, everything bagel seasoning, and balsamic glaze.

Our first visit!!
We weren't expecting to buy a home any time soon!


Matthew's gardens - his first pumpkin!

Remote school.  I absolutely loved being able to do window candles and decorate windowsills!

Lots of bike rides from Lexington to Concord.

Snow days - we took the opportunity that year to make lots of great cookies for neighbors.

It was so fun finally being able to decorate and paint Claire's real bedroom!

Finally!!!  Huge relief!

Matthew got into beekeeping after taking a community course with Mark.
Sadly, the bees ended up dying (some food we tried to make them for wintertime melted on them)
but we will try again next spring!

Best.  Day.  EVER.

Seeing Mark's family again in Michigan.  Revisiting old traditions like The Cherry Hut.

Only two dates so far since 2019!  This was a great one.

That fall, Mark did an Ironman - he barely trained for it.  It was in the mountains of upstate New York (Lake Placid)

Universal turned out to be one of my favorite family trips of all time.  We had such a fun time seeing my brother and his family again - I believe we didn't see them for Christmas 2019 so it had been possibly nearly 3 years!

A New England feast of local foods from Fresh Pond Seafood (amongst others).  Last great meal at our old dining room table!

Blueberry picking, summer 2021.

The house did need a few more touches; we added built-ins and did a fireplace makover!  Before...

... and after!

Mark's dad had always wanted to see Manzanar, so we did a trip out west. 
Claire insisted we rent this - she loved i!!

Great shot in Yosemite!

Mark and I snuck off to bike the Golden Gate Bridge!

It was kind of creepy - a nice little adventure!

Christmas morning breakfast.

Decorating cookies with Nana.

Me and the best dad <3

Matthew and his new swords.  Probably last time he'll let me pick his clothes out.

Finally after all these years, my own built-ins with my own treasures.  

1 comment:

  1. Came back to your page for a vaccine refresher! Candace Owens has been stirring the pot and coming in hot with a very serious anti-vaxx (not just COVID, all vaccines) campaign. She’s being very detailed and plans to address each and every vaccine they give children to debunk them and how they originated. Would be very interested to hear your take, or your husband’s, on her claims.