The odds were stacked against him long before the novel coronavirus wreaked havoc on our health-care system, but I can’t help noticing a similarity between the delays in his diagnosis and treatment and the delays in our national response to the pandemic. Through mid-March, despite news of covid-19’s toll in China and Italy, Americans carried on as normal. We acted as if nothing was wrong because our government assured us that nothing was. Just weeks later, we are in full-blown crisis. My father’s diagnosis came after six emergency room visits, one ineffective surgery, one near-fatal blood clot, sepsis and many assurances from overworked doctors that he was fine. It was only his relentless advocacy that got him that MRI.
His experience aligns with research showing that black and Latinx people are less able to access the care they need and that poor people receive poorer health care. Unsurprisingly, health care is a proxy for life’s inequities, as it has been in the pandemic. Instead of being supported by our health-care system, my father was eroded by it.
After learning of his grim diagnosis, I planned to visit him frequently this spring — to interview him about his childhood in Ecuador and spend what could be our last days together by the ocean, the place that makes him happiest. Covid-19 has made that impossible. While I’m sheltered-in-place in my Brooklyn apartment, he is dying in Florida, where I last saw him in February.
I arrived in Fort Lauderdale to a man I barely recognized. His face was pale and more wrinkled than I remembered from just six months earlier. He could no longer walk without pain. His legs and ankles were so swollen that his shoes barely fit. In the weeks leading up to my arrival, I called my father’s doctors to hear about his diagnosis and treatment from the source, hoping to piece together what he, confused and overwhelmed, had been able to glean about his condition from his brief visits with harried medical staff. I pleaded with whoever would speak to me to find him a social worker, to assist him with a food stamp application and get him rental assistance. No one ever called me back. The receptionists said they were too busy to chat. I don’t doubt that to be true.
Yet when I — his white-passing Polish-Ecuadorian daughter, public health degree and polite persistence in hand — accompanied my father to his chemotherapy appointment, his doctors finally paid attention to him. In those 10 minutes, it was discovered that my father had been prescribed insufficient blood thinners — the culprit behind his swollen legs — a potentially fatal error. Two months after I hugged my father goodbye and boarded a plane back to New York, he teeters on the edge of homelessness, still without a social worker. He is one of the lucky immigrants, too. He is a naturalized citizen who has lived here for 37 years.
While I am new to sheltering-in-place, my father knows this lifestyle well. He has been barricaded in his studio apartment for the past year, too sick to work, too exhausted to venture outside, too broke to afford pastimes in the real world. He was prepared for isolation long before the coronavirus hit. He is not prepared to fight it.
Six thin face masks are all my father has to shield himself from covid-19 for the rest of his cancer treatment, an indeterminate period of time. My search for N95 masks online, in stores and among friends has so far been unsuccessful. Instead, I tell him to wash his hands, to not touch a thing wherever he goes. Every Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. when he receives chemotherapy, I await the ping of his WhatsApp message notifying me that he has left the clinic with minimal social interaction and his mask still intact to breathe again.
Scrolling through Twitter, I am dismayed by the videos of people hoarding toilet paper, food and medical supplies. But what critics have identified as rampant individualism, I recognize as fear. I shopped for my father with a similar vigor during my trip two months ago, filling his pantry with grains and canned beans for fear he would starve without income.
The case of my father’s cancer and coronavirus are similar. In both, the government has given us no assurances that it will protect the sick. Have cancer or coronavirus? Are you a person of color, low-income, disabled or undocumented? Good luck. Inequality and ill-preparedness are the realities here. Because of this, my father is gravely vulnerable to a life-threatening virus with a cancer I am certain developed in our overburdened and under-resourced public health-care system. Because of these disparities, hospital beds fill up in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, and the lives of those who fill them will be triaged.
As a public health major in college, I studied the way infections spread: one sick person quickly multiplies to four, then four to 16, and so on, soon forming the familiar curve we see plastered across newspapers and emblazoned on our minds, the one we all are desperate to flatten. In biostatistics class, professors warned us that a novel virus could wreak pandemic havoc on our overpopulated, interconnected planet. Now we are here.
As the days spent in my apartment increase, I know the time I have to spend with my father is growing shorter. During my trip in February, we schemed about a taking trip to Mexico to visit his mother, my grandmother, the opera-loving spitfire he had not seen in two decades. The goal of the trip was for us to spend time together as much as it was for them to see each other before their inevitable separation. In April, she died after a bad fall, denying him that opportunity. As my father mourns his parent from thousands of miles away, I wonder if the same fate will befall me months from now.
The truth is we are all mourning something right now: our relatives overtaken by the virus, the moments we are losing with those we love, the world we knew before this pandemic took hold. I just hope this collective despair will be a catalyst to force us to see, and fix, the health inequities in our country, and the world, to which we have become so accustomed as to be numb to them.