The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My family sacrificed to fight covid. Many Americans didn’t. Now my mom is dead.

We did our part. But our leaders failed to push others to do the same.

Hospital workers insert an endotracheal tube into a covid-19 patient in an intensive care unit in Sarasota, Fla., in February. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Tuesday morning, Jan. 26, my family stood at the bedside of my mother, Julie Oeser, watching as she took her last breath after being in intensive care for 11 days due to complications from covid-19. She was 62 years old, with few preexisting conditions.

My mother’s death was a tragedy for our family, but it was also a betrayal. Like so many of the 554,000 Americans who have died of covid, her death could have been prevented if more of our fellow citizens had been willing to fight the virus — or if our leaders had been willing to ask them to.

My family did our part. As a public health nurse practitioner, I was a contact tracer, making phone calls with cases and contacts. I also went into nursing homes with active outbreaks to help analyze and improve their infection control procedures. My older sister, Jenn, works as an emergency room nurse at a large hospital east of Los Angeles. (Before our mother’s death, she was already burned out and traumatized after caring for so many patients who were sick and dying from covid-19.) My younger sister, Jess, is a medical laboratory scientist at a busy Kansas City-based hospital. When coronavirus testing was new and staff was short, she volunteered to help run tests on top of managing her regular duties at the hospital’s laboratory. And my mother and father always took the pandemic seriously: They constantly washed and sanitized their hands, they avoided crowds and they wore masks everywhere. My mother would have signed up for the vaccine as soon as she became eligible, if she had lived that long.

But not everyone chose to do their part. Following the lead of former president Donald Trump, who downplayed the pandemic all along, many people still refuse to wear masks. (Or they wear them improperly, around their chins or under their noses.) Egged on by the president, many states lifted restrictions too soon, despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed that mask mandates slow the spread of the coronavirus. And the people working for Trump knew they weren’t doing enough to ask Americans to fight the pandemic — as former White House adviser Deborah Birx admitted last week, saying most of the nation’s deaths could have been prevented.

When I call you, it means you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus

Although my parents were always careful, they got sick and tested positive for the virus in early January. During the first week they were ill, my father cared for my mother, on top of managing his own symptoms. But eventually my mother became too sick, and Dad had to rush her to the emergency room. She told him she didn’t want to go; she was worried that if she went in, she wouldn’t come home. He worried and wondered if he was doing the right thing while he was filling out paperwork. When he turned around to tell her that he loved her, the staff had already wheeled her away.

Due to the severity of her illness, my mom was transported to an ICU. Three days later, she was placed on a ventilator. My dad and I stood by her bedside, stroking her hair and holding her hands with our blue-gloved hands as our tears drenched our N95s, trying to make sense of how things had gotten so bad.

Dad went into shock after seeing my mother intubated, so I drove him home. His body convulsed, and his blood left his extremities, leaving his hands and feet white and frigid. I covered him with blankets and lay on top of him, waiting for his shaking to pass, the two of us staring at the empty spot of the other side of the bed where my mother used to sleep.

For nine days, our family waited in agony, allowed only to stand outside of her ICU room for 30 minutes each day. We learned that her lungs were slowly starting to heal from her diffuse and bilateral pneumonia, and that the staff felt hopeful that she would be one of the lucky ones. We felt hopeful, too, until the night my dad got a call from Mom’s nurse at 4 a.m. Dad woke me up, crying, unsure what to make of the nurse’s call. She told him that Mom’s blood pressure was dropping and they weren’t able to keep it up. When he asked the nurse if we needed to come to the hospital, she said yes.

“She’s going to die, isn’t she?” he asked me through tears.

I choked on the words, knowing the truth but struggling to give the answer. “Yes, Daddy, she is.”

Four hours later, she was gone.

After we all worked tirelessly for the past year, my family now grieves. For Birx to say, after the fact, that hundreds of thousands of deaths, including my mother’s, could have been prevented doesn’t help anything but her conscience. She and her colleagues in Trump’s White House simply weren’t committed enough to protect those lives. They failed us all.

Widespread testing might not work in America. We love our ‘freedom’ too much.

As a West Point graduate and combat veteran, I was taught that good leaders chose the harder right over the easier wrong. My whole family knows that: My older sister did 15 deployments overseas in the Air Force, and our dad served 28 years as an officer in the Army. Birx is also a former Army officer, and so she knew she had a responsibility to protect the American public. As did Trump. And the result of their failure was that our fellow Americans failed to protect each other, too.

Elected officials owe the public the unwavering scientific guidance needed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. From the beginning, we knew that simple measures like mask-wearing, social distancing and limiting crowds should have been applied early and widely; those measures, if ordered and enforced, could have prevented surges and deaths like my mother’s and so many others’.

 When I flew from Washington, D.C., to visit my sick mother in Kansas in mid-January, after she was placed in the ICU, I was appalled to see so many people refusing to wear masks in the airport and on the plane. For 10 months, my family and I had thrown ourselves into the battle against the pandemic, and the moment left me feeling bitterly disappointed in my fellow Americans. As I returned home five weeks later, with President Biden in office and my mother dead, I cried tears of joy when the Transportation Security Administration agent refused to let the man in front of me through security without a mask. Why hadn’t we practiced such simple acts of humanity, kindness and patriotism across the nation from the beginning of the pandemic?

 My family was willing to do tough things on behalf of this nation, willing to put our lives on the line during times of war and times of sickness, and all we expected in return was mutual respect for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. My mother raised me to love my neighbor, to care for my community and to use my talents to help those around me — regardless of race, gender, religion, politics or creed. Wearing a mask and getting a vaccine when able are two easy ways of protecting yourself and others.

And while part of me wants to wallow in my anger and grief, I know my mother wouldn’t want that for me. Instead, she would want me to take action. So now I volunteer as a vaccinator, helping to keep willing Americans and their families from suffering her fate — and ours.

When I give members of my community in Arlington, Va., their coronavirus vaccines, almost all of them thank me for my service. I want to cry, upset that it’s too late for my mother. Instead, I try to smile and thank each person getting vaccinated for doing their part. It’s what my mother would have wanted.

Twitter: @munn_jackie

Read more from Outlook:

The death toll doesn’t mean we overreacted. It means lockdowns helped.

Governor, my father’s death is on your hands

Americans honor ‘warriors,’ but that doesn’t extend to coronavirus victims

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.