Reflections On COVID-19

Very few people alive today could likely remember the last pandemic, because The Spanish Flu began in 1918, and ended in 1920, which was over 100 years ago.  Yet, it bore many resemblances to this pandemic.  There were mask mandates, social distancing (even if they didn’t call it that) recommendations, schools and business closed, events cancelled and much disagreement regarding these “rules,” much like there has been with COVID.  And, interestingly enough to me, it began less than an hour away from my home, just down Interstate 70 at Fort Riley, a United States Army base near Junction City, Kansas. 

It seems history does indeed repeat itself.

Except for the epidemiologists, very few people saw this coming.  Reports that have since come out have stated that those medical specialists who predicted it are not surprised, but most of us are—myself included. 

I am a medical professional, but I have yet to directly treat anyone diagnosed with COVID.  My speech therapist colleagues in larger hospitals have treated post-ventilator COVID patients after they were mercifully removed from this lifesaving device.  Many of the patients experienced voice, swallow and cognitive deficits.  I have heard their stories, and I am grateful that in the limited circle of patients I treat, I wasn’t called upon to provide therapy for these patients.  I do, however, remain in a position whereby I have to be tested at least weekly, as the small amount of work I do in a skilled nursing facility requires it. 

I began 2020 with a long list of personal and professional goals, and, well, you can guess what happened—or didn’t.  Yet, I find I have grown in other ways, mostly in my level of gratitude for the good health I have been able to maintain.  There is another form of gratitude I have cultivated, and I hope that many other people can say the same.

I have a new respect for doctors, nurses, nurse aides, emergency medical personnel, respiratory therapists, physical and occupational therapists—as well as other speech therapists who have treated COVID patients, pharmacists and other ancillary medical professionals who have worked—and continue to work—the front lines of the battle against COVID.  And we must not forget the hospital housekeeping staff members who are required to place themselves at risk to keep the medical setting as clean and hygienic as possible.  They, too, are heroes.  All these professionals stepped up when duty called, and even though they likely didn’t sign up for the job in order to be heroes, they did indeed become heroes.  Many became ill themselves, and some succumbed to COVID after contracting it from their patients.  Many continue to experience the symptoms as “long haulers,” those who cannot overcome the debilitating symptoms.

The pandemic has provided us with a new set of words and terms that, while we are all familiar with the individual meaning of most of the newly used words, we have new understanding of what it means to “socially distance,” “contact trace,” “flatten the curve,”  and “quarantine.” The word “pandemic” itself is on the tips of nearly everyone’s tongue, rarely having been uttered before.

As a word nerd, I am interested in the meanings and relationships of words.  Everyone knew what an epidemic was before COVID; a pandemic can be defined as an epidemic with a passport:  it can, and will travel the world.  The term “COVID-19” originates from four separate terms:  COrona VIrus Disease.  “19” was added because it was discovered in 2019.  There are many forms of coronaviruses; this term sets this particular one apart from all the others.  Suffice it to say, it is not important to remember this, but it is an interesting nod to how our language changes and shapes itself around what is important to the people who speak it. 

The Great Divide over mask-wearing has caused too much strife to too many people, myself included.  I feel that a friendship I have will be permanently scarred after I pulled my mask up in March of this year when a friend was speaking to me with her face close to mine without a mask, as she sometimes struggles to hear.  She took offense, stopped the conversation there, and we haven’t had another one since.    I know of too many other divisions to speak of. 

I will confess right here that I held out longer than I should have before I got the vaccine.  I am not against it, but I felt I needed more information.  I then realized the discrepancy between my words and my actions—or lack thereof—when I tell friends I believe in the scientists who are studying this disease, but I didn’t get the vaccine. 

The tides turned for me when a dear friend—a nurse—got the virus.  She called me on my birthday in April from Phoenix, where she works in a large hospital.  She sounded terrible, and felt worse than she sounded.  She recovered slowly within the next month.

She was the lucky one.  Her healthy, 50-year-old husband got it shortly after, and became gravely ill.  He was hospitalized for five days, struggling to breathe.  Luckily, he did not require a ventilator.  On his follow-up visit to his pulmonologist, he was told he was the lucky one of the three otherwise healthy 50-year-old men he treated for COVID:  the other two died.  My friend was against the vaccine before this.  She is now planning to get the vaccine as soon as allowed after the waiting period after a positive diagnosis.    She reports she is still tired but feeling much better, and her husband is back to about 80%–in his words.  He will get the vaccine, too.

I told them they were my inspiration for getting the vaccine.  “You are the third person who has said that,” she said.  “I am a far-Right, conservative Republican,” she said, “and I feel like I am letting many people on my side down, but the vaccine is more important to me now.  I know I must do everything I can to prevent this from happening again, or from making someone else sick. 

I am so thankful to have them both here, and I am so thankful for the vaccine.  I remain a bit uncertain of it due to lack of long-term studies, but I decided I was more scared of the virus.  And, deep in my heart of hearts, I feel it is safe for the long term.  I simply have been listening to too many negative opinions about it.   

I hope that anyone who reads this who is still holding out like I did takes this question to heart:  which one are you more afraid of—the vaccine, or the virus?  Please, if you are considering getting the vaccine, please consider it more seriously.  Just consider, and think about my friends I just wrote about.  That is all I ask.  

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COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, but they don’t all have to be negative.  I have provided a few suggestions for looking at the glass as half-full:

  • Our health care system in America is not perfect, but we have some of the most skilled professionals in the world.  Unlike many countries, our access to them is not completely controlled by political, economic and social factors. 
  • Gratitude is a practice that grows with practice.  Offer a ‘thank you’ to your doctor and other professionals next time you see them.  They are dedicated professionals who truly care about your well-being.
  • If you have remained healthy, be sure to give thanks for this.  If you have suffered due to COVID, my wish is you will be restored to health.  If you have lost loved ones to COVID, my heart breaks for you.  Use this awareness of the fragility of life to live yours to the fullest. 
  • We all need each other.  Social distancing and separations from family and loved ones have taught us this.  Let none of us take our loved ones and the ability to see, touch and hug them for granted.  We have learned the hard way it is a gift not granted.
  • COVID forced business and personal interactions to go online, and forced many people to learn a new skill—online communication. My goal as a communication professional is to return to face-to-face communication as much as possible, but many people are seeing benefits of this element:  we can conduct more business online than we thought we could, we can build businesses online, we can see our medical provider online for some needs and we can connect with people who live at a distance whom we may not see often enough.
  • Practicing hand-washing and perhaps mask-wearing when you have a cold may be good ideas that are here to stay.  The incidence of colds and flu in the last year plummeted, very likely due to this increased attention to prevention of spreading germs. 

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Life is unpredictable.  The pandemic has blindsided us and divided many of us, but we are forging on as individuals, communities and as a country.  We are stronger than we know; COVID and its accompanying heartaches have taught us this.  Thank you to all who are on the front lines, and to all who have done their parts to keep this pandemic at bay—social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinating. We now know more fully the power of what an individual can do, as well as the group.

Together and united,  we are stronger as individuals, as communities and as a country.