Patty Laird, 65, Las Vegas: My friend Howard died from complications of covid-19, alone in a hospital in Summerlin, Nev., on March 24. Alone because no one was allowed to visit. He was a lifelong devotee of Chicago blues and an excellent drummer and harp player. He was also a dealer at a casino. Cards and dice. That’s probably how he was exposed to the virus. And, most likely, he went on to infect others. His first symptom was fatigue. Didn’t really feel sick. About 10 days later, he was gone.
If you needed help, a laugh or a hug, Howard was there. He was full of life and loved people. Shutting down the casinos and closing Las Vegas was the right thing to do. And I know if Howard were still here, that’s what he would say to anyone willing to listen.
Gaddy Noy, 34, New York: “Your mom’s test result came back positive for covid this evening,” I told a patient’s son, who was calling our emergency room to get an update on her health. His shocked silence carried the weight of many questions, concerns and fears he had for his mother. I am an emergency psychiatry physician working at a large [New York City] hospital, but even I am struggling to find the words to describe my experience. My hospital system is overwhelmed. A recent tally had 1,900 confirmed covid-19 patients currently admitted, 27 percent critically ill and 600 on ventilators in the intensive care unit. Out of 128 total patients in my hospital’s emergency room, 114 have covid-19 symptoms. At any one time I check, I see at least a handful of emergency room patients listed as “expired,” which is the medically preferred way of saying, “they’re dead.”
Lainey Webb Moseley, 56, Philadelphia: Will my daughter be eligible for a ventilator if she develops symptoms of covid-19? Probably not. In these unprecedented times, heroic doctors and hospitals are working hard to save all lives. But when ventilators are in short supply, someone has to decide who lives and who dies. Leta is my nonverbal 22-year-old daughter with special needs. She has lung disease and pulmonary hypertension. With dozens of trips to the ER for respiratory distress all these years, her life has been a dress rehearsal for this pandemic. Only this time, if Leta goes into respiratory distress and needs a ventilator, according to guidelines that are being sent out to hospitals around the country, she, and probably many of the 7 million other people with developmental or cognitive disabilities, would not make the cut. Deciding who receives lifesaving medical support is a tragic choice. Doctors are on the front lines facing draconian decisions, and the thinking is that guidelines will take the hardest decision away from individual medical teams. But it is fair to ask “how do you measure a life?” It is painful and frightening to think my daughter does not have the attributes that society deems worth fighting for.
‘Three weeks ago, I wasn’t a hero’
Sophia Upshaw, 22, Atlanta: I hate needles. I’m also a Ph.D student studying to become a scientist, and I recently volunteered to join a covid-19 vaccine clinical trial. I was admitted to the study, along with 44 others from around the country, but only after the clinic drew my blood for testing. Last week, I was injected with mRNA-1273, one of the first covid-19 vaccines to be tested in the United States. The vaccine shot felt like a typical flu shot. Still, I admit that, as I received the shot, I felt a moment of doubt. Clinical trials, by definition, carry some risk of potentially harmful aftereffects. In the days after receiving the injection, my arm was sore and I occasionally felt feverish, but my temperature has never broken 100. Several of my family members called to check in with me, more so to ask whether I’d lost my mind. Some couldn’t understand why I’d chosen to be a human guinea pig when health should be my highest priority. I joined the study because I’m a scientist, and I felt a duty to help the United States deliver a potentially lifesaving vaccine as quickly as possible. A few weeks from now I’ll receive the second dose of the vaccine. They’ll do more blood tests to see if I’ve built up immunity. In 16 months, the entire trial will be complete, and we’ll all get to know whether it worked as intended. I hope the world will have returned to normal by then. I also hope I’ll finally get over my fear of needles.
Mahesh Krishnaswamy, 66, Singapore: My wife and I are visitors to the United States. We came to San Francisco from Singapore some weeks ago to visit family. We got here just before California went into lockdown. Our son-in-law completed a four-year residency as an ER doctor in New York before moving to the West Coast. He met our daughter in New York and proposed to her in Central Park. So they have very fond memories of the city. When the number of covid-19 infections began to climb in the city, he decided that he had to go back to help. He took a two-month leave of absence go to New York to work in the ER. His parents — and we — were terrified at the risk he was taking, but he assured us that he had been trained to do this. He took his own protective equipment in case nothing could be provided to him when he started work. Like so many others, he is now on the front lines of the fight against this deadly virus.
Zain Jafar, 18, Chappaqua, N.Y.: I’m a high school senior, and both of my parents are physicians. Dad’s 350-bed hospital is currently housing 95 infected patients, with case numbers rising at an alarming rate. Not too long ago, one of his nurses and one of his partners tested positive. But complications and emergencies don’t stop. Dad is still in the operating room. And albeit with serious precautions, he’s still seeing patients in his office, interacting with dozens daily to ensure they receive the care they need. Mom, meanwhile, is scheduled to return to work next week, even though she herself is immunocompromised and particularly at risk. A single N95 mask, one that she must keep safe and sanitary, will be her lone barrier against potentially serious disease onset. Like Dad, she’ll be interacting with many patients who need her care.
My parents already inspired me to also become a physician; I’m planning on studying premed in college. But the coronavirus pandemic has drawn me even more toward a career in medicine. Like the thousands of nurses, physicians and other staff around the country currently battling the pandemic and providing care, they’re the ultimate models of professionalism and altruism. I want to be just like my parents.
Roger Rosen, 47, South Orange, N.J.: I work in a grocery store. I am not a hero. Unlike doctors and nurses, who know that they’re on the front lines of life when they begin their professional journey, my goal in getting my job was never to be on the front lines of anything. In fact, getting a job in a grocery store felt like the best way to avoid responsibility. The job allowed me to dedicate the rest of my time to my passions. I didn’t sign up to be an “essential service.” It didn’t occur to me that I’d feel lucky to even have a job when the entire service industry has been decimated. I didn’t sign up to be scared all day, wondering if you’re the one who’s going to get me sick. Not once did I think I’d have to come home and strip naked at the door, throw my clothes in the hamper or washing machine, and shower. It didn’t occur to me that I’d have to stay away from my husband in order to keep him as safe as possible. Really, I just needed a job.
Three weeks ago, I certainly wasn’t a hero. People snapped their fingers at me while on their phone to get my attention, spoke over me while I answered their questions, snatched products out of my hand after I fetched it for them from the back room. Three weeks ago, I was largely dismissed. My job was not respected, and therefore I was frequently not respected. Now, suddenly, my co-workers and I are heroes in the memes and the thanks going around. Suddenly, people stop what they’re doing to make sure I’m keeping myself safe and to say, quite simply and earnestly, “thank you.” Those moments are wonderful. And yet my co-workers and I are doing the same thing we’ve always done. The difference is not us, it is you. And if there is anything good to come from this nightmare that’s ripping through the world, perhaps it’s not that we service workers are worthwhile and valuable now, but that we have always been.