Covid and Me: Epilogue
“If you contract the virus, there is a high probability that it could be lethal to you. You should not expose yourself to anyone outside of your home until this pandemic is under control,” warned my pulmonologist in late March 2020. A few weeks earlier, I received a message from his nurse that stated “At this time, the ILD program is recommending the highest precautions be taken within our high-risk population. We consider you high risk.” I’d been in self-imposed exile since March 10th. I had been watching the news of the pandemic in Washington state in February and as it exploded in New York City, I knew it would be everywhere soon.
I am not one to panic. Actually, I am usually calm when confronted with hazards or the unknown. In 2002, I started coughing a lot and had shortness of breath which was increasing in intensity. I was misdiagnosed by my internist for several months just calling it asthma without taking any tests or X-rays and just prescribing different inhalers. I continued to worsen and could not climb one flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath every 2 or 3 steps. The doc was baffled and knew I was moving, so he advised to wait until I changed my environment to see if I improved.
Within a week from moving from Upstate New York to Madison, Wisconsin, I found a new internist. By this time, my skin was a pale gray with a look similar to people in heart failure. I was 43 and was healthy until that previous 6 months. My resting pulse oximeter never read above 90% (normal is over 96%) and within a day I was scheduled tests and an appointment with a pulmonologist.
I struggled to completing the breathing tests. I would start coughing and I almost blacked out a couple times. They took arterial blood gases and a couple minutes later a nurse came out with a wheel chair and placed me on oxygen. The pulmonologist informed me that my blood oxygen levels dangerously low. They ordered at home oxygen and a battery of tests at the hospital.
After a month of testing and retesting and a dozen different University of Wisconsin specialists there was no diagnosis and no treatment plan. I was tested for routine diseases and conditions and because I was a veterinarian, they called in a veterinary epidemiologist to help diagnose me.
One day, the doctors finally stopped testing me and gave me the bad news. “You have pulmonary fibrosis. It is a progressive disease, and there is currently no cure for the damage caused by scarring and inflammation. There is no treatment, but we will try to slow it down as much as possible. You will probably need a lung transplant in 5 years.”
I was devastated. I was scared. I was studying for my board exams in veterinary pathology which were 6 months away. In a normal year the first-time pass rate for the board exam was between 27% to 37%, so it took intense effort to pass. My doctor, my partner, and my boss recommended that I put the boards off for a year. My friends wondered why I would take a strenuous 2-day test instead of just enjoying my life.
But I was determined to keep going, so I read journals and texts with my trusty nasal cannula delivering oxygen up my nose for 15 hours a day. I kept studying. Why? I decided that this was not going to stop me.
Eighteen years later (in 2020), I approached the covid-19 pandemic the same way I approached life with my lung diagnosis. I knew I was high risk. I also knew that the inflammation that covid caused in lungs is exactly the part of my lungs that were already injured and scarred. I knew that I already had trouble getting oxygen from the air into my body. A ventilator could not push enough oxygen through my scarred lungs to satisfy my bodily needs.
With a lot of careful living and monitoring I had stretched that “five year until lung transplant” prognosis into eighteen years of pretty good living. In late February 2020, I devised a plan to survive the pandemic. It was a three-pronged approach-deny, survive and thrive.
Step 1: Deny
I did not want to hear all of the covid-19 news. I knew enough, so why hover over every detail and every statistic. I stopped watching the news and I asked my friends not to discuss this with me when we chatted. It was pretty easy to shut out the world by shutting off the T.V. and ignoring the stories on the internet.
Step 2: Survive
My years as a laboratory tech when I was in my early twenties must have prepared me for this. I understood the decontamination process for viruses. I developed protocols to deal with my mail and delivered packages. I stocked up on food and essentials. I learned about survival from my grandparents who had lived through the Great Depression. I wasted nothing. I stretched food and cleaning supplies to the point of producing almost no garbage. At first it was game, but then became a way of life for me. During the early days of the pandemic, curbside pick-up for groceries was limited. I went without milk and fresh produce for more than a month. But after a couple months, it was streamlined and easy. I ordered everything I need delivered to my front porch or the back of my car.
A couple of weeks into the official Stay-At-Home order from the Minnesota governor, I felt the virus was everywhere and people were dying. Maybe there would be no escape. I freaked out and called my estranged partner of over 28 years. After living together and supporting each other in every possible way, she abruptly moved to Alabama five months before the pandemic. She was with me through the entire lung scare of 2002. Now she was gone. We had a lot of problems that needed to be repaired. So many problems that our world shrunk to just the two of us. I thought we had enough love to get us through anything.
“Will you come take care of me if I get the virus,” I sobbed. Her blunt answer, “No.” “
What if I need help?”
“What if I go in the hospital?”
“I will come back home to take care of the dogs, but not you.”
“Will you come say good bye to me if I am dying?” “No.” “You will let me die alone?” No answer.
“Will you let me die alone?”
“I will not help you. I will not take any chance of getting sick. You will have die without me.”
I was flattened. I did not think she was that cold and cruel. I just thought about how meaningless those 28 years must have been to her. A year earlier, her brother died and left her a nice sum of money. She’d been planning on leaving me for over a month with no discussion.
One Tuesday in early June I spent the afternoon planning a vacation to New Orleans and then went to a Jewish bagel cooking class in the evening. When I arrived home at 9 pm, she looked at me and started crying.
“I can’t do this anymore. I bought a house in Alabama across the street from my sister. I will be signing the contract in 3 days.”
There was no discussion. No compassion. It was just like her attitude toward me during the pandemic. I did not matter. She was heartless and unfeeling in both situations.
It was a double whammy for me. I had to face the unknown covid-19 pandemic absolutely alone and I had to look at the ugly relationship I was trying to save right in the face. In addition, I had retired about 6 months before the pandemic leaving work friends behind. I was just beginning to rebuild my life. Other than a few long-distance friends, I was alone. Totally alone. No family. Just alone. Except for my two very loving dogs.
My dogs, Fritz and May, gave me the power and resilience to keep going even when at my lowest. Since Liz left, they have never been more than a few feet from me. If I cry, they immediately mobilize into action to comfort me. They climb on my lap; lick my hands, and look into my heart with their four big brown loving eyes. I can’t suffer too long with them working so hard to cheer me up. Sooner or later a tail wags and I smile.
They held me up and held onto me through the most painful two years I could imagine. They insisted on long walks in nature. Nature has always been my place of serenity, joy, and comfort. They would get bored going to the same place, so I had to get creative looking for new challenges for their curious noses. Their love of life and of me was the strength I needed to make it through the covid isolation.
Step 3: Thrive.
I suffered for a short time at the beginning of my time covid solitary confinement. But then I decided that this was the hand I was dealt and I had to just make the best of it. It was just like when I kept studying for a board exam while facing a life-ending disease. I looked forward and kept going.
I attended free online photography lectures; attended two different churches online; went to two different live online Bible study classes; and learned as much about Minnesota nature online as I could find. I checked out books and music and movies from the library who delivered things to my car curb-side. I even went to a few online grief meetings, but they were intended for people who survived the death of a loved one. If Liz had died, I could have remembered her as my loving devoted life partner. It would have been inaccurate, but easier to live with. She did not die and the pain of her continual pushmi-pullyu (Dr. Suess’s "push-me-pull-you") rejection has never ended. But I kept myself so busy that the spring flew by without noticing all that I had lost.
About a month before it looked like covid virus was going to become a pandemic, I took a free course at the local library. It was call ‘Creative Oasis Wellness Workshop’ and advertised as” workshop created to let your curious, imaginative self out to play with other likeminded folx”. It sounded interesting, but I thought it would just be a little writing workshop. Wow, was I wrong.
The instructor/facilitator, Sarah, had us doing a few things that made me feel uncomfortable. Our last task was to make something, using construction paper and glue, that represented a feeling without using words. I announced, in a more negative way than my usual self, that there was not a creative bone in my body. Twenty minutes later, I created a kite that symbolized how I felt. In that short amount of time, I felt a spark inside. Something different than I have felt for so long. Something freeing. Something that lifted me from the pain of the broken relationship. Something that made me feel like myself. Something that was gone for so long that I did not even remember it. I felt a little more alive than I could remember, but it was so strange to me. The kite symbolized the freedom that “Young Sheree” knew. I was free from a toxic relationship. Free to dive deep inside and find me again.
Covid hit and I signed up for Sarah’s online workshop, Story Medicine, again without knowing what to expect. I did the writing and worked the prompts and pretty much went with the flow. I felt that same spark and it just kept growing. There was creativity buried inside and the work helped the spark simmer into a low flame. I was not just writing. I was healing from the pain of my loss. I was dealing with the covid virus and my mortality. But at the same time, I was finding such deep joy. I was being restored to the inner me that had been lost for more than 30 years.
I took Sarah’s “Deep Dive” courses and a second “Story Medicine.” With each course I dove deeper into who I am and how I arrived at this point in time. It was more than just a history of Sheree. I was being transformed into what I used to be and something new, both at the same time. It was so difficult and so liberating.
Every day I would walk my dogs for about 1-½ hours in the morning and then in the afternoon. I would pray and write stories and poems in my head while we walked. I listened to frogs and the wind and the warblers. I watched flowers come and go. I felt the grandeur of nature enrich me. I felt the Creator surround me with beauty and life. I felt my soul start to soar.
My life was no longer the same as it was pre-covid. I started to understand and feel love.
“Because the greatest love of all Is happening to me I found the greatest love of all Inside of me“
But this love is not a love of myself, it is a love of everything. I learned to love my dogs’ individual characteristics and quirks and love them even more deeply than ever. I started to love the grouchy old lady in Bible study class. I accepted the flaws in friends. I forgave Liz and now love her more deeply than ever even though the relationship is dead and almost gone. I accept her as she is and not how I thought she was. My love for myself has deepened. I almost don’t hear her constant belittling ringing in my ears about how horrible a person I am.
Throughout the year of covid isolation, I started making new connections online and building a new community. I am letting people slowly see me. Last week, my church study group said I was part of the family. Liz has been my only family for so long and then she was gone. Now I am building a new family and a new life. I feel a vast sense of interconnection that has led me to love life even more.
Creativity was my roadmap to finding myself and finding love. Not romantic or family love, but the love which is a thread that runs through each of us. A profound connection from me to all beings and all beings to me. I feel the spirit of life within me and surrounding me and this spirit is the Creator which I call God.
Even though I am still locked up behind covid’s curtain for a while longer, I am freer than I have ever been. I don’t have many friends yet. No close friends. I have not been touched by a human being in over a year. I have no life partner on the horizon and maybe that will never happen. But I have this deep love inside of me and it makes me fly like the kite I constructed so many months ago.
“On the wings of love Up and above the clouds The only way to fly Is on the wings of love”