Sarah Finefrock is a resident of Portland, Ore.
Think of someone you love unconditionally. Choose the person who makes your heart fill with joy at a thought: Is it your child, your parent, your partner, your closest friend? Say their name to yourself, take a slow deep breath and close your eyes.
Now picture that person in a hospital bed. Machines are beeping. Your person is unconscious, on a ventilator. The machine is forcing air into their chest, making it rise and fall steadily. The nurse tells you your person spends 21 hours a day on their stomach, but they are upright today because today is their day.
Sometimes the machine sounds an alert because your person is fighting against the ventilator, trying to still maintain some independence. It suddenly feels so morbid to think how casually we all say “so-and-so was a fighter.”
Picture yourself next to your person, holding a cold, limp hand. It feels heavy because you are doing all the lifting. You catch a glimpse of your own reflection in the window and see a full-body paper suit, surgical gloves, an N95 mask and a face shield. A few minutes ago, the nurses asked you your glove size and you didn’t know how to answer, so now your gloves feel too tight.
You realize the staff is telling you how to prepare for your person’s “transition.” That’s a nice way of saying your person is going to die. Right now. And you will be there when it happens. You already feel guilty because, between the deep ache in your chest, you feel an odd comfort knowing they won’t be in any pain anymore.
You think back to the 10 days before your person was put on a ventilator. They couldn’t get enough of a breath to relay a verbal will, so the two of you played a game of yes-or-no questions to give your person a chance to lay out their thoughts and end-of-life wishes without wasting air.
Boom, you are back in the intensive care unit with an overwhelming cacophony of beeping. The medical team tells you to look away as they remove the ventilator, and you notice they are making noise to prevent you from hearing your person choking and gasping for air. Then, the room goes quiet. They have turned off the machines so that the beeps and alarms don’t further upset you. The data does not matter anymore.
A moment later, you become desperate to tell your person everything you think they need to hear before they die. Your mind panics, and you already feel guilty about all that you have and haven’t said.
Your person gasps. You look at the nurse who assures you it’s normal and apologizes for something your person has just done. Immediately, you are jealous, or resentful, because this nurse knows your person more than you do right now.
The nurse tells you your person is gone and shares their condolences. The words mean nothing as your world numbs. You thank them anyway. Suddenly, you don’t know whether to stay or go. Someone has to re-explain to you the strict protocol on removing protective equipment. You must remove the too-tight gloves first, but don’t touch anything. There is an order to it, and you are scared to deviate because you have people you love in the outside world whom you need to keep safe. You walk out, alone.
My experience was on Friday, Nov. 13. My person was my dad.
His name is George. His name was George. He was funny and giving, and frustrated me at times, and he was overly proud of my brother and me. He wore a mask, and he died of covid-19.
George made an impression on people he knew. To know him was to laugh with him. So why have I spent the past few days worried he will be just a number the news shares each night? More than 1,300 Americans died of covid-19 on Nov. 13. I worry George will be another anonymous statistic presented through jokes and memes about how awful 2020 was. I need George’s death to mean something to strangers, just as much as you would want the person you loved most to matter if they died.
All I can do now — the only path left for me — is tell you to take covid-19 seriously. Don’t end up clutching your person’s hand as their body no longer accepts air.