As we emerge from the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to wreak untold damage. Don’t believe it? Ask my friend and his loved ones who have dealt with the horror first-hand.
If you read through history books, you’ll find specific events throughout time that literally changed the world, and among all the good and the bad (including inventions, medical breakthroughs, political movements, and wars), you’ll also find such plague- and pandemic-related horrors as Black Death, smallpox, the Spanish Flu, and yes, COVID-19.
And yet, there are still people who don’t believe the coronavirus is a big deal, comparing it to the flu or a bad cold while downplaying the importance of masks and vaccines. But the vast majority of folks know better, especially because so many have dealt with it on a personal basis since it took hold here back in March of 2020—be it the deaths of loved ones, milder cases that soon went away but didn’t really go away, or those cases that have been endlessly horrifying roller coaster rides for months on end, with this last category hitting very close to home for me.
This is about my friend Derek.
You just don’t expect youthful people who are larger than life and have huge personalities to fall ill, but they certainly do, and COVID has proved this over and over again. Contrary to the belief of some, this is not an old person’s disease that exclusively ravages nursing homes and retirement communities.
No, COVID has hit every corner of society, including 50-year-old suburban folks like Derek; as was proven in his case, all it takes is one little opportunity for the virus to break through no matter how careful one is, and that, as they say, is that.
Just before Christmas, Derek started to feel “COVID-y” and indeed tested positive for the virus, along with all but one member of his family. A few days later, he was rushed to the hospital and quickly placed in intensive care, and by early January, he was put on a ventilator, remaining in the ICU—and mostly intubated—right into May at which point he was finally moved to a rehab facility to start on what will be an exceptionally long road to recovery.
The time that Derek spent in the ICU was a terrifying period in part because the recovery from COVID (unlike the flu and colds) is not a linear path. His friends and family endured so many ups and downs that it brought about a form of PTSD in some ways; think about the prospect of phone calls early in the morning, emails late at night, and text messages 24/7 giving dire updates, and you can probably figure out that those close to Derek were mostly unable to fully function for months on end, with every aspect of life being affected from work to sleep to eating. And then consider having to go into the hospital multiple times to possibly say goodbye, since no one knew whether he would make it through the night. And adding to the stress was the fact that because of the pandemic, only one person would be allowed in at a given time, which meant that practically speaking, only family members would be able to see him since there were also so few time slots.
The bottom line is, no matter what you were doing, be it reading a book, watching TV, talking a walk, driving to the market, doing a Zoom call, or chatting on social media, the elephant was always in the room (and still is to this day), and there was nothing that you can do about it. The elephant was always there, whether you popped a couple of melatonins or did a shot of whiskey in order to try to find a way to get maybe a few hours’ sleep.
The coronavirus is known to wreak havoc on people’s lungs, and Derek was no exception; while in the hospital, his oxygen levels were so low that the ventilator basically helped keep him alive, and his lungs were simply too scarred to work properly. As he slowly weaned off intubation and his lungs began to heal a bit, it was obvious that getting enough oxygen was only one problem, as stomach issues, a consistently-high temperature, and endless pain were just a few other major issues that kept him from being transferred to rehab. And rehab was needed more than ever by the spring, as all the time that Derek spent in bed caused his muscles to atrophy to the point where he was unable to stand up, never mind walk.
When he was finally transferred to rehab in mid-May, it was obvious that it would be months—and possibly a full year—before he could return home, and it isn’t really known what will happen when he does return home. Will he be able to walk again? Will he be able to work? Will there be a constant need for visiting nurses and physical/occupational therapists? None of these questions can be answered right now, as he is still unable to do much of anything on his own more than a half year after first feeling “COVID-y,” though he was recently able to start doing what the vast majority of people take for granted; he was finally able to eat actual food, including a grilled chicken salad and a hamburger, which might not sound like a big deal, but considering how serious Derek’s condition has been for such a long period of time, this was a major milestone and gave us just a glimmer of hope.
What Derek has gone through has been the type of nightmare that no one should ever have to deal with, but the bottom line is, he’s one of the lucky ones. Very few people who got as sick as he did ever recover, and those of us close to him are forever grateful for all who have helped—from the many doctors and nurses who literally saved his life to his old classmates, former co-workers, and total strangers who have lent support over the past several months, to those who have chipped in to raise money for Derek and his family, as the bills that are adding up are very substantial, to say the least.
Those who have passed due to COVID have left terrible voids in the lives of so many since the pandemic began, and because this isn’t the flu or a common cold, even some who have “recovered” fairly quickly now face something altogether different and unexpected. They are among a group known as the long-haulers, in which symptoms—in some cases life-threatening—remain in place (or developed over time) many months after first testing positive for the virus. Some ongoing issues are distressing but relatively minor, such as a continued lack of taste or smell, but others are extremely serious, including heart problems, brain fog, major breathing issues, dizziness, and total fatigue, and because the medical community is still learning about COVID, it isn’t known when these symptoms might go away—if ever. In Derek’s case, while he certainly qualifies as a long-hauler as well, even if he manages to remain free of the above listed symptoms, he still has a very long, hard road ahead of him.
COVID-19 has disrupted everyday life in a myriad of ways, from restaurants and other small businesses closing for good to people having to learn how to socialize from a distance, and so much has been put on hold until recently such as weddings and work conferences, while gatherings on a smaller scale such as birthday parties, retirement parties, and the like have also been scaled back or canceled. But the human toll that this virus has taken is, of course, the biggest story of all, and to those who have suffered loss, things will never be the same, while to those such as Derek who have beaten all the odds only to face what seems like an endless uphill battle, there is certainly hope, but also the fear of the unknown—and a form of battle fatigue now starts to set in not only for Derek, but for all who are close to him.
Will the coronavirus eventually disappear? No one really knows, but because of the combination of masks, vaccines, and social distancing (and yes, the heroes among the front lines of hospitals and other medical centers), we may be closer to the end of this scourge than the beginning, which would mean that maybe, just maybe, no one would have to go through what my friend and so many others have gone through.