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How Am I Going To Be An Optimist About This

In the middle of a massive forest, surrounding by rolling mountains, sat a village. It wasn’t perfect, but it was picturesque; a white steeple rose from the middle of the valley, and the whole scene became vividly painted in autumn. It had your general assortment of people; some folks weren’t as nice or law-abiding as they could be, some went out of their way to be contrary. Mostly, people there kept to themselves, living and letting live. In times of crisis or need, however, so many of them were ready to help in a moment’s notice. 

Like most places that sound idyllic when encapsulated by an outsider, the village had its share of problems and concerns. Most folks went about their day-to-day lives with an ease of accessing all they wanted, often unaware of their own privilege. Others struggled to get where they needed to be, or find ways to meet their essential needs. For long stretches of time, everyone forgot that they lived on the slopes of a volcano. 

There had been occasional talk in the lofty treetops of being ready when the volcano awoke. Such plans were often brought up when money needed to be spent or leaders wanted to be elected, only to be waved off like smoke once the price was paid or the election over. Everyone murmured agreement with the vague statements of preparation and planning, but there was always something else to pay attention to. Anyway, they said, the volcano had lay dormant for a hundred years. There were a few rumbles, now and again, sure; but nothing that hadn’t been weathered with some extra grit and good old Yankee know-how.

The volcanologists who happened to live in the village even forgot about the sleeping giant for periods of time. 

But lately, when snow still blanketed the forest floor and the tops of the pines brushed against the winter blue sky, the birds had been twittering. The woodland creatures scampered with a more frantic step; in the way of things, they were tuned into something much bigger than the villagers, mere mortals, could feel. The wind blew with the barest whisper of what was to come; no one noticed.

The rumbles started from far away, far enough that the village had an almost imperceptible shimmer. The scientists and scholars  glanced at each other, unsure of how to acknowledge the tiny trembles, not wanting to believe what they could mean. Messages came from far-off places; earthquakes, eruptions. Those who worked the land began to take heed, and helped the scientists amplify their voices. As the ground started to shake closer and closer to home, the village began to prepare. 

Businesses were shuttered, schools were closed. Windows were boarded with plywood, and people lay in odd supplies. Bottles of water and rolls of toilet paper were hoarded; antiseptic cream and clean bandages were stockpiled. Surely, these would be what they needed to survive the coming torrents.  Some went through the motions, not believing it would be as bad as others said. They called it an overreaction, even as they added cans of food to their shopping carts. 

Others rallied to action, making supplies by hand to handle the fallout. Their movements brought the community together and helped to ease the anxieties of so many. This was how they would save the village. Those who needed the supplies accepted them with gratitude and grace, but with a heavy heart as well. 

The volcanologists worked tirelessly, preparing for a future no one wanted to acknowledge, that everyone wanted to believe could be avoided. They screamed the truth, but no sound came out. 

This is Rutland, Vermont. This is the town I work in, the hospital I have dedicated the past 5 years of my career to, the community I have come to embrace as my own. There is no fault to be had in this village. The leadership has been excellent, from our CEO to our governor. The preparations have been running at full speed. The community has come together, donating time and supplies, helping each other. The streets are nearly empty; most everyone is staying home, staying safe. My drive to work has no traffic now. I pass storefronts with fluorescent paper signs in the window – Closed, Stay Safe. The hospital feels like a ghost town, employees working from home or not working at all. The air is heavy with foreboding, and people are taking the threat of coronavirus seriously. 

I’m screaming, and no sound is coming out. 

This is what I have studied for years. This is what I went to school for, giving up hours upon precious hours with my wife. Hawthorne knows what the back of my head looks like in every mode and mood. They hear my silent cries, and I’m grateful, but it doesn’t stop the screaming.

People cannot fathom what is about to hit. They have weathered storms and natural disasters and fought on; they have taken up the shield before. They think we’re ready; and truly, I think we’re as ready as we can be. But you can’t board up your windows with plywood and expect to make it out when the floor becomes lava. 

We are flattening the curve. The rise of corona cases in Vermont follows the same trajectory as in other places, true to the epidemiologic curve, but at much smaller numbers. As of 8 AM Saturday morning, March 28, 2020, we have less than 200 cases, and ten deaths. That number will rise today, tomorrow, and the days after that. We are practicing social distancing, and bleach is the new ambience. The measures are working. 

I don’t know if it is the human condition or us in particular as Americans that lead us to believe we are special. Ask a group of people if they think they think they would be in the 70% of the population who is going to contract the virus, or the 30% who is not; nearly everyone believes they are in that 30%. We don’t want to think about losing loved ones, about what it actually means to get the virus, and to be in the high risk groups. It’s always somebody else who is going to get it; someone else’s grandmother, someone else’s spouse. 

I am not special. I have more chance of catching this virus than I do of staying clear. I work for a hospital; not in clinical care, not even in the main building, but with people who do. There is an acceptance in our office, a knowledge that sits within each of us that we will most likely be infected. People in healthcare, grocery stores, supply chains, and cleaning professions around the world are familiar. We are not so special that we can avoid the virus. 

Putting aside factors like age and general health, if I have one hundred people in my life, 70 of them will contract the coronavirus. Out of them, 14 people will become life-threateningly ill. 3 of them will die.

The town I live in has 650 people. 455 will get the virus, with 91 needing critical care, and 21 will die.

My hospital has over 1700 employees. We need to expect 1190 to get the virus, with 238 needing critical care, and still, 51 will die.  

Flattening the curve doesn’t necessarily mean less people will need critical care or less people will die. We don’t yet know enough about the virus to know that. What it means is this. 

Hospitals, like ours, will still be overwhelmed. It almost doesn’t matter in some respects if you are short 30 ICU beds or 3000. Those working the front lines are still overrun and still doing their job as best they can for as many people as they can. Flattening the curve means that we are giving our healthcare workers who WILL get sick time to get better, and hopefully return to help. It means that instead of the loss of hundreds of lives within days, when everyone gets sick and all the critical patients arrive at once, we at least have the chance to save more by spreading thin resources out. We don’t want what happened with toilet paper to happen with ventilators. 

I am scared. I know I am likely to get the virus, to pass it on. I am so likely to lose people, and I don’t want to acknowledge that, let alone make my peace with it. I am no politician. I’m not trying to get elected for anything. I’m not a motivational speaker, not a preacher or priest. I cannot offer hope, a silver lining, or promises of bright future if we just fight hard enough. I can’t even fake it.

But along with memes and messages of hope I cannot smile at, there are also those of support, and I’m here for that all day. Knowing the grim statistics will not make me fight less. It just makes me hyper aware of what devastation our village will endure. The world is going to look very different in a couple months. We will be changed; no one will be unaffected. And it will be up to the survivors to make sure those silent screams are captured by the history books.

Stay the fuck home, friends. 

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Time I Had Some Time Alone

This isn’t the post I have been trying to write. Here there is no research, no fact checking. I realize now why it has been taking me so long to finish that one.

I am anxious as hell.

For those of you who know me well and this is not a revelation, I’ll thank you to keep your “well, duh,” under your breath – behind a mask optional.

I am not anxious about the coronavirus. I earned my master’s in public health just this past year from johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with a certificate in Quality Improvement, Patient Safety, and Outcomes Research. That certificate won out narrowly to one in epidemiology or statistics, two other public health realms near and dear to my heart. I feel I have a pretty solid grasp on the behavior of the virus, the steps to mitigate the spread, and the danger we are in.

I am not anxious about getting the virus. I am a relatively healthy 33 year old; I have high blood pressure, but it’s well controlled on medication. I was recently pregnant and my daughter is exclusively on breastmilk, but there is no indication that this puts either me or my daughter at risk. I have a decent immune system, honed by nearly ten years in emergency medical services, dealing with some level of exposure to whatever is going around. I am vaccinated accordingly, I receive the annual flu shot, and I wash my damn hands.

While I am increasingly worried about Hawthorne contracting the virus, that is not the source of my current gripping anxiety. Hawthorne has poorly controlled asthma, and has for years. Their immune system takes a beating, often. Whenever we are sick together, their symptoms at least twice as long as I do, and the asthma exacerbations continue into weeks. We have sort of made our peace with the fact that Hawthorne will likely come down with it, and we have made preparations for how to handle things if and when they become significantly ill. They have been tested for the coronavirus and are currently quarantined in our home; we have divvied up the silverware and towels, we are following the guidelines as close as we can while not leaving me with all of the parenting, cleaning, chores, and my own work. 

I’ve been up since 4:30 on a day where I do not have to go to the office. Lucy was up every hour last night; it’s strange to think that something that I’m eating is disagreeing with her tiny tummy so much. I couldn’t sleep any longer, couldn’t try. My mind has been racing, my eye twitching. Lucy learned to screech this weekend, and practices every chance she gets, testing it out with every mood. It’s adorable to see her smile, all gums and joy, and then jarring to hear her hellshriek with the same smile. I’m not anxious about the impending couple weeks at home with her on my knee, coffee at my elbow, and data on my screens. 

I am anxious because right now, with seemingly inevitable quarantine (which I agree with!), I am about to lose the hard-won routine and structure I have developed since returning to work after maternity leave. Self-isolating or quarantining leaves a lot of wide open days; Lucy is too young to have lesson plans, and I’ve never worked from home for multiple days in a row. I feel like I have just completed my reentry into work life, crash landing and stumbling out, dazed by the sudden atmospheric shift. I have made it over the first hurdles of balancing work and life with a new baby at home, the first days of not knowing quickly how to proceed when I don’t have childcare, the first extended hours of feeling like a vital and visceral part of me is missing. 

Years ago, Hawthorne helped me realize that one of my coping mechanisms for stress and lack of structure coalesces into overworking myself. Maybe I start spending long hours at work, or banging away at work projects off the clock. Often it means I start looking around the house and the world and everything in between, making lists upon color-coded lists of projects to do. What is coming to surface right now is the drive to help. I feel useless, helpless, here at home when I know how hard my colleagues are working. It doesn’t seem to matter, internally, that I will be back at the office soon and able to jump back in the trenches with them and support. I understand how hard it is to believe that the best thing that I and millions of others can do is simply #staythefuckhome. I’m fighting the urge now to not be involved in every community initiative, moderate every Googledoc, deliver every meal, and write to every isolated senior. 

Part of the reason I never questioned becoming a doctor when I was growing up was I felt that doctors were, above and beyond, helpers. They were able to take care of people, to fix things, to make things better. Watching some of the doctors my father interacted with when diagnosed with ALS scuffed my rose-colored glasses, so long trained on the medical field. I remember my anger at his first neurologist, a jaded man with wire-rimmed glasses on a straight nose and zero compassion. Even at 15, I felt nostalgic for a time I had never known, when doctors visited the homes of their patients and occasionally accepted bread and unlabeled jams as payment. I had watched Patch Adams too many times, I guess. If I was going to be a doctor, I was going to be a doctor who cared.

Jumping headfirst into emergency services felt natural; there, I was helping people, I could see that every day. I did fall into the EMS culture (another story, another day), but mostly, I was able to remember what I walked away with from my original EMT class. When people called 911, they were doing so for a reason. They needed help. People have been taught for decades now that when there is an emergency, you dial 911. No one has done a good job at defining what an emergency is on a wide scale, so the term has become completely subjective to folks outside of the healthcare fields. I don’t get to define what someone else’s emergency is. Maybe it’s loneliness. Maybe it is running out of a medication and not knowing what to do, or maybe it’s a dead cat; whatever it was, there was a reason.

There were, undoubtedly, many more frustrating calls than there were true medical emergencies. It wasn’t prestigious; benefits were practically nonexistent, and the pay was terrible. Then the Fight for 15 began, it became a contentious point in EMS: most people entering the field wouldn’t see a payrate like that for years, even though they are literally the first line of response in life-threatening situations. We weren’t in it for the money; some may have been for the glory, I suppose. It took a lot of work sometimes to remind myself that, as EMS professionals, were being given an honor by the public we served; there were times it took substantial effort to remember that we were being not only called, but invited in to people’s emergencies, their worst moments. We were the ones who showed up in the times when people were most vulnerable. We were the helpers.

I let my card lapse with absolutely no regrets. Since then I have happily remained in a non-clinical role. The decisions I have are not life and death; if I make a mistake, it needs to be fixed, but no soul hangs in the balance. This experience, sitting home while the virus creeps over the land, has made me realize I don’t know how to not be a helper. I know there are thousands upon thousands out there like me, feeling stymied, even as we are doing the best possible thing – staying home. Somehow I will have to find more of an actionable way to help; I just don’t know what yet. 

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Maybe It’s Time

I’ve been dreaming about running. 

My dreams lately, for the most part, have been extremely vivid and realistic until I wake up. I don’t remember them, I’m just left with a swirl of color and emotion as the dream drains away, paintbrushes washed after the project is complete. Sometimes the anxiety stays, sharpening the edges of the day; sometimes it shines only in washed out shades, the colors leached out before the sun even rose. 

But the running dreams are different.

My dad had been running since before it was cool. In the late 1960s, my father was a student teacher at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, where my mom and her brother were working on their undergrad degrees. My uncle returned from class one day, telling my mother about a man running in circles around the track, alone, in the scorching heat. Crazy, they agreed. 

A few months later, my mom was set up on a couple of blind dates. She double-booked; having known her, I don’t think she was hedging her bets, but just a bit forgetful. The first man showed up driving a Jaguar and was, I quote, “slick.” She was about to get into the car with him when my dad pulled up in a beater of a VW. My dad was a lot of things; smart, quiet, resourceful. Slick wasn’t one of them. Rather than winning my mother over on charm, my father challenged his rival to a test of strength: whoever could do the most handstand pushups could take my mother out. I smile when I think of her, curly hair straightened, eyes sparkling as she fluttered, trying to play it cool. She would have had a lit cigarette between her fingers as she envisioned telling the story to her girlfriends later.

The man who would become my dad kicked Jaguar Slick’s ass. I imagine this handsome, polished Lebanese man struggling to get hit feet up on the wall without scratching his loafers, trying to figure out exactly how to impress my mother while upside down, soft hands pressing into the gritty sidewalk. He could not complete one vertical pushup. My dad found the position easily and effortlessly rose and lowered until he had completed 7. My mother got into the VW, and they were married by the end of the year.

My dad ran until his legs stopped working. When I was practicing martial arts and training for my black belt, I would run with him. One of the physical fitness goals I had to reach was running 5 miles within 50 minutes, so when I was twelve, I started accompanying him, plodding along the bumpy sidewalks of our town. He took it seriously, as he did most things. He had me get fit for running shoes, taught me how to care for shin splints, and dragged me out to run in all weather according to the training schedule. I didn’t love it, to say the least. 

Running did not come easily to me. I wasn’t lithe like my father; I was sort of stocky, with the legs of someone who should have been much better at playing catcher in softball. I was solid; I was unaccustomed to seeing family resemblance between my parents and I, and here was no exception. My feet hit flat, jarring straight through my shoulders, and there was none of the easy grace I saw in my father’s stride. I wanted so badly to make my black belt, so as boring and difficult as I found it, I ran. 

One early summer day, we were out in a soft rain. It was gentle enough to feel cool when I lifted my face. The sidewalk was narrow, pocked and bumped up by the long-reaching roots of pines planted decades before the pavement was laid. We were crossing by a cemetery that dated back to the 1790s. Some of the stones had a slight list, slow-motion jostled by those same roots. My father and I had visited the small cemetery before to make rubbings with crayon and chalk. I imagine those are still packed away within the boxes of my sister and I’s art projects, paintings, and early poems. I caught my breath as we passed, starting to follow the old superstition of holding back breath when passing a cemetery, before I remembered I needed to breathe in order to run. As I let it out, I felt my body hitch like a bicycle when it clicks into gear, and for the first time, I was running comfortably. 

Step-breath in one, left foot. Step breath in two, right foot. Step-breath out, left. Four out, right.

Cushioned soles slapping the pavement in steady cadence. 

Air filled my lungs, opening, welcome. 

Weight slipped from my shoulders, and the rush of my blood gave one last roar before falling away to calm waves.

I grinned at my dad. He grinned back. Wordlessly, in perfect rhythm, we turned to cross the empty stretch of town road and take the slope down the first side street. I had found my stride.

That was twenty years ago now. My father is gone; my mother too. I’ve been married, divorced, and married again, much happier. I’ve bought and lost a house; I’ve failed classes and earned degrees. I’ve been hired, fired, and lied to. I’ve known sorrow that I wish on no one else, and joy to rival it in my children. 

My body has changed, morphed into someone I have trouble recognizing. It is difficult to find me when I look in the mirror. The face is the same, sure; the ponytail, the skin tone. My belly carries with it a new softness, twice remodeled. My arms show where I carried my babies and my grief. I have lost my hard-won confidence in bikinis, and I forget my strength easier than ever.

My legs are starting to remember. I can feel them awaken. The long cells tremble as they stretch and moan, awakening from their torpor. The muscles in my thighs trade lightning fire with my brain, a bright volley back and forth. Remember, they jolt. Feel the stride. 

They lengthen and stretch.

In, one, two. 

They brace for impact. 

Out, one, two. 

My hands and wrists feel light. 

In, one, two.

My dad’s legs work again.

Out, one, two.

My father severed his Achilles when he was in his twenties, and he talked about it often; how much he missed running, how determined he was to get it back. The scar tissue grew thick over the tendon, and stretching became one of his favorite lectures. Thirty years after that injury, thousands of miles in between, he missed qualifying for the Senior Olympics when he was 55 by 2 seconds; he ran the 800 meter in 2:32. To put that in context for those who are not obsessed with track and field events, that’s the pace of a 5-minute mile. At age 55. Already having symptoms of ALS. 

One of the things I’ve had to reconcile with my relationship with running is the feeling that I’ve let him down. I have not kept as physically active as he insisted upon in my early teenage years. When he was diagnosed, I vowed to never take my body or its abilities for granted. I have not kept up with that promise. I have tried to get back into running; I have used Couch to 5k, I’ve looked up race schedules. We have had, I think, two or three treadmills and ellipticals – they came in free or low-cost off Craigslist and went out the same way after their stint as a rehab machine for Hawthorne after back surgery, or a blanket rack. 

But this feels different now. I dream of running in the summer; warm mornings with the sunlight shining through the verdant cathedral of the forest, soft rains that bring me to within a mile of home. I dream of the burn I know will welcome my body back alive, and the peace I find when it all aligns. Everything in my life feels jumbled together; I am constantly running between family and work, driving and driving along curvy mountain roads, my mind ten paces ahead of me. I make lists for home at work, and adjust workplans in my head at home. I am exhausted.

It’s mud season now, but that won’t last forever. The dreams won’t either. The snow is melting, the northern hemisphere shedding her icy layers. We are both preparing; my dreams are crocuses, stubborn, willful, pushing up through the crystalline snow, demanding their space, demanding to be seen. Winter is going. It’s time to find my feet again.