The subtle symptoms are there. Nothing nearly as bad as the last two times, but he is still not well – physically. Mentally and emotionally he is in good spirits, blissful to be surrounded by his family.
“Wow, Dad. You certainly chose an awkward time to develop a lung infection. Right in the middle of a deadly pandemic that attacks the lungs,” Tracy says jokingly. She tries to keep things light-hearted and good humored, even though the room is thick and compact with emotions.
Dad laughs, but everyone else feels the weight of what is about to happen. The stress is mounting, tension rising. The air is electric with all eyes focused on Dad – a once strong, mighty and commanding figure, now laying on the bed, half the size of the man he used to be.
“We need to decide now what we’re going to do. Are we going to take Dad to the hospital or not? And if so, when?” Terry asks. As the eldest sibling and son, a lot falls onto his shoulders.
“The last time Dad got sick, we delayed hospitalization because of a misdiagnosis. His pneumonia became life-threatening. A month later, after being at home for just two weeks, your father developed a fever and got more and more sick with each passing day, but we didn’t want to take him to hospital because of fear – fear of Covid-19, fear of his age, fear of the hospital. That delay resulted in him needing major lung surgery,” Mom explains this in a gentle tone. But after all, Tracy, Terry and Theo know all these details all too well.
What Mom says without words is even clearer – though unspoken, they know Mom is saying they should not delay. They agree.
“So, we’re not waiting any longer. This morning Dad woke up feeling not entirely himself. He’s shivering and feeling cold and it’s a mid-summers day. This is not normal and it’s not something we should expect from his healing process. Let’s leave now to the hospital so we don’t have to wonder or worry without reason,” Theo asserts the final decision. He has seen it all. He has seen Dad at his best and at his worst. He was the one to carry his dad when he could not walk on his own; he bathed him when he could not do it himself. Truth be told, Theo’s heart could not take seeing his dad like this – weak and tired.
As a family, they make the decision together.
Mom sniffs. Whether it is stress or emotions, Tracy puts her arm around her mom providing the unspoken support she knows Mom needs. After all, two hospital stays in two months, both resulting in mechanical ventilation, is enough to emotionally drain anyone – especially if that person is your life partner and has been for the past 41 years.
A series of small, seemingly mediocre decisions follow.
Should we pack a bag for dad? He probably won’t be there for too long, so maybe just an overnight bag.
Should he take his cell phone and charger? Yes, he might get bored and we are obviously going to want to speak to him often, especially since we can’t visit him.
Whose car should we take?
Should we all go to the hospital?
Should we drive together or separately?
Each decision is made in haste, all to get Dad the best treatment, should he need it, without further delay. Each decision brings them closer to their destination – St Theresa’s Private Hospital.
Wheeling Dad into the hospital on a wheelchair makes it all too real, too quickly. Tracy feels a gut wrenching feeling, a punch to the stomach that creates a gaping hole of fear and uncertainty. That feeling spreads from the pit of her stomach to every part of her body; her skin prickling; a layer of thin, cold sweat covers her from head to toe. Her legs turn to lead, getting heavier with each step.
As they approach the hospital entrance, it looks anything but welcoming. The touch of humanity that once existed is completely erased, hidden beneath face masks, face shields and hazardous material suits. Screens and distance create an uneasy and cold feeling. And while Tracy knows she is standing before unsung heroes, her heart is pumping faster than it ever has before.
“We are doing the right thing, right? We’re making the right decision to bring him here, aren’t we?” Tracy whispers nervously to Terry. The other questions she has she leaves unspoken: Are we putting him in harm’s way by further exposing him? He is going to be out of our sight with no visitations, will he manage being alone without us? Will we manage without him?
“Yes, of course we are doing the right thing. This is the best place for Dad to be. He will have the best care here, with experienced professionals. They can do things for him here that we could never do for him at home.”
Tracy accepts that answer, even though it sounds like Terry is trying to convince himself of the same thing, trying to convince himself as much as he is trying to convince her.
They are all back home, sitting and waiting. Every purpose of their lives seems to stand still. No emails or phone calls from work, no pots on the stove, no dishes in the sink, no need and no purpose other than to wait. The waiting seems to go on for but a few minutes but the hours bleed into each other. The days age and mature from morning to evening but the intense nervousness that exists in that house does not move a smidgen.
Then the phone beeps.
Results are available.
Together they bear witness to the most unexpected thing.
Covid-19 test result: POSITIVE
The air is sucked out of the room. Everyone is holding in their breath and they are unable to release it.
Panic surges through their veins, questions flood their minds.
Tracy is the first to break the silence – an excruciating, ear shattering scream from deep within her soul pierces through the room. The sound breaking the barriers of their minds as the realization sets in for each and every one of them.
“How could this happen?” she cries out through sobs. “We did everything we could to protect him! We tried to keep him safe over everyone else. How did this happen?”
Theo sat down on the sofa, face pale, tears streaming down his cheeks, shaking his head as if in response to his sister’s questions.
Dad, a 65-year-old man who has stage two diabetes. A lung patient who just had major lung surgery. Masks worn constantly around him, his family not hugging him or touching him in celebration when he got discharged from hospital to avoid him getting sick. Dad, the patient doctors tried so hard to make sure he doesn’t get exposed to the deadly virus. All the odds are stacked against him.
Then, Mom’s phone rings. It’s the doctor calling from the hospital. Everything goes by in a blur, threads and bits of the conversation falls into the abyss of their concentration, or lack thereof. The only detail Tracy picks up is the doctor stating that Dad contracted Covid-19 at the hospital before his previous discharge, and that the entire family needs to be tested.
The next days and weeks go by at lightning speed, blurring into each other. They don’t know when one day ends and the next begins. Bad news upon bad news. Mechanical ventilation, tracheotomy, difficulty weaning off mechanical ventilation, and lastly, weeks of bad news culminating in a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis caused by Covid-19.
The stress, fears, let-downs and dismay of each day is a crushing weight on everyone. With Dad laying in the hospital, entirely out of their reach, no one feels like they can catch their breath, and that irony screams into their faces every second of every day.
“I guess we have all Googled what pulmonary fibrosis is,” Theo says, his voice thick with emotion and cracked with strain. “Even healthy people are given three to four years maximum to live when diagnosed with fibrosis.”
The silence that follows is deafening… until the phone rings once again. And Dad is no longer a resident of earth.
What if we hadn’t taken him to hospital? What if we had decided to wait? What could we have done to prevent him from getting sick in the first place? What if we had done something, anything, differently?
Did staying at home mean life and going to the hospital mean death? Or was death always inevitable despite the decisions that were made?
What seemed like a simple decision to take Dad to the hospital resulted in us losing our rock. We are all the sum total of the decisions we make. Our decision, that seemed correct, and might have actually been correct, left us as fatherless children and a husband-less wife.