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Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

It’s the second week of April, and it has snowed nearly every day this week. The heavy, wet flakes cling together in the shadows, blanketing the barely-awake grass in patches so the snow looked crocheted. It will melt as the sun encroaches, seeping into the cold ground. The brook has finally receded back to its springtime levels after rising a few feet during a day of torrential downpour. By the time we walk in it, it will be impossible to tell which storm or melt moved new boulders into our path. 

The air is no clearer, there are no changes in the traffic on our road. Stay-at-home looks almost no different than when the world is bustling and busy. We still hear a plane maybe once a week; logging trucks still thunder by. 

Our governor declared that Vermont has passed the peak of coronavirus infection. Watching the first signs of a plateau in cases, I am almost ready to be maybe cautiously optimistic. To paraphrase the meme I’ve seen regarding the northern New England states, staying six feet apart seems awfully close. Vermonters have been pretty good about staying, in local terms, one cow apart

We have not seen the influx of illness and death that had been projected just 4 weeks ago. Social distancing, “stay home, stay safe” orders, and the Vermont attitudes toward independence and resilience are working to reduce and prevent transmission of Covid-19. 

Working for the hospital as a non-clinical member of the infection prevention team and scrolling through my echo chamber on Facebook have validated this first tingle of hope that we have avoided catastrophe. 

Of course, one only has to blink to see outside that bubble.

I have decided that arguing with men on the internet is a form of self-care I am indulging in during this pandemic. I have not been one to wade in to internet arguments much before; I don’t enjoy feeding trolls. When I did engage, it was not necessarily to argue (ha!) but to correct something blatantly false that wasn’t also a conspiracy theory – I have my limits. But right now, there is a deadly pandemic; a gorgon at the door, its hot breath blowing in from New York and Massachusetts. 

When I worked in EMS, we had to prepare for blizzards and hurricanes, and in 2014, for the possibility of Ebola finding its way to us. My counterparts made the necessary arrangements and backup plans but teased my high level of concern in both situations. I was a newer member of management, relatively young in the field, and one of extremely few women at the table; I was not as jaded when it came to preparing for disasters that never seemed to materialize. I was better at keeping quiet then, too. I did not fool around during PPE training, but I wasn’t as vocal as I am now. 

Seeing the carelessness with which some people are conducting themselves during this pandemic enrages me on every level – personally, professionally, and academically. The misplaced bravado, the utter disdain for guidelines, the willful ignorance of science pumps up my blood pressure. I feel it build like some sort of apocalyptic katamari in my chest, jagged and off-kilter, heating and churning to boiling point when I can’t stop reading for incredulity. I need to release the valve, blow off some of that steam; scalding men on the internet who call me a sheep has been a fun little release (I am specifying men here because when I argue with women, they don’t often respond; and when they do, it lacks the utter condescension and vitriol).

Why is this affecting me so? Why can’t I just scroll past? I don’t like how much time I spend on social media anyway, why can’t I just put my phone down? I have asked myself this several times lately, and the answer comes from my idol, Leslie Knope:

I care too much because I understand the stakes, and I have seen enough suffering.

I have seen the panic in the eyes of the vented patient when the perfectly spaced breaths aren’t enough, when the air sacs in the lungs fail to inflate. I have locked eyes and delivered breaths through long, drawn-out minutes of a power outage, waiting for a generator to click on, and a machine to take over the squeezing of my hands. I have seen the terrified disbelief in the eyes of someone drowning by inches in a dry bed.

I am no stranger to Death. I have seen her come for the unfamiliar and family alike. I have felt the brush of her hair as she has reached past me to spirit away the hand that I hold. I have ignored her gentle admonishment to stop when pushing, pushing, pushing on old and broken ribs. I have seen her leave the memories, a trail of blood-red rose petals to the afterworld; and I have seen her snatch away breath with greedy hands. I have seen her wait patiently for my father, and smooth my mother’s hair away from her soft face. I have seen her cradling my son, tears in her eyes, an unspoken promise to care for him. No, Death and I are not strangers. 

Death has already come for tens of thousands around the world, invited to this grim party by the coronavirus in addition to her normal rounds. Already the numbers have reached those a degree or two away from me. Right now, thankfully, they seem to be plateauing. Our vigilance is working; alternate care sites and negative pressure rooms stand empty, boxes of supplies on the shelf. Staff is still ready, all hands on deck; the hallways echo without visitors. Work pushed aside so quickly in March is starting to pop up on to-do lists for some; furloughs and lay-offs have emptied the common areas. 

I am trying to be extremely deliberate when I say the measures are working – present tense, a current and ongoing action. It will be a long time until we can say it worked. As the internet says, ending quarantine now because it’s working is like stopping medication because you feel better. We just aren’t there yet. Projections show that the curve has been flattened absolutely, some places much more than others; but we have to keep looking down the line. This virus doesn’t magically disappear when we hit a certain date or temperature or season. There is much more work to do. We are not out of the woods yet. 

I understand the gravity of the economic situation. I know hundreds of thousands of people are scared of what the next days will bring, even if the lockdowns were to end immediately. I can see the havoc wreaked by the virus on sectors other than healthcare. I worry about the success of our small businesses, and the education of our students. I miss concerts and baseball and my family. I see the effect quarantines and lockdowns are having on people, and I sympathize – but without people, there won’t be an economy to fix. If we were to lift all the restrictions, the only things different would be that some places would be ready for a second wave of infections and fatalities, and some would continue to be devastated. 

There is no going back to life as we knew it. That is a switch that cannot be flipped, as most in the US were able to do after the Ebola outbreak in 2014. This time, we are heavily involved, whether people want to admit that or not. Going forward, life will be irreversibly changed. No one will be unscathed. If we continue to handle with caution and test tomorrow’s ground with every step, we can maintain this plateau. If we don’t, if we start going out and gathering together in the streets as we did before, we will rewind this tired clock and have to start again. 

And if you want to fight about it, get ready to step. I can keep up this argument as long as the willfully ignorant can.

Keep staying the fuck home, friends.

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