AS COVID-19 CONTINUES its rampage across America, I’ve joined an exclusive club whose members have just one thing in common – poor odds, if the coronavirus gets its microscopic hooks into us.
I’m not complaining. We all die, and I’ve enjoyed a lifetime of close calls, near misses and lucky breaks that put me just months from my No. 78 birthday.
But we are never fully prepared, even when we’ve had some practice runs. Here’s one:
On Oct. 25, 2016, I was driving a 2003 Civic – a fine car, but more coffee can than Sherman tank when it comes to bulk – on Route 4 South in North Kingstown. Near Oak Hill Road, a “woomp.” The Civic was suddenly airborne, its windshield wipers madly slashing away non-existent raindrops. We returned to earth and the highway’s shoulder.
My cell phone indicates that I called 911 at 8:54 p.m. When I got out of the car, I could see that the trunk was now part of the back seat. A Narragansett man, who had been driving a Toyota pickup, told police he was texting and never saw the car ahead of him.
It still seems impossible that I was totally fine. The engineers who had designed the coffee can had provided crumple zones that absorbed the impact of a direct hit. The pickup’s driver was saved by an airbag. Intellectually, I know it could have ended differently.
THERE HAVE BEEN other brushes with the unknown. A blood test in 2008 showed cancer in my prostate, which later was vanquished by radiation. Diabetes was discovered the same year, but with stern medical supervision, it’s “well-controlled.” After a stress test, a cardiologist called my cell phone and told me to turn around and drive straight to Miriam Hospital; a catheterization opened a blocked artery and a stent was implanted to keep blood flowing from my heart; the surgeon off-handedly called the blockage a classic “widow-maker.” More recently, a radiologist examining a CAT scan for kidney stones spotted a shadow of something else; plucked out by robotic surgery, it was found to be cancerous.
So many escapes, thanks to skilled medical care and smart auto engineering. But some of that history now makes me easy pickings for COVID-19.
As I said, I’m nearly 78. In New York, half the deaths are those of people between 60 and 89. “Underlying conditions” worsen the odds, and I’ve got an unofficial list: diabetes, heart and cancer histories, kidney issues, lungs vulnerable to bronchitis.
And get this: the “novel” coronavirus so new that it hasn’t heard about “male privilege;” quite the opposite, it kills more men than women.
IT GETS WORSE.
Let’s say that a member of our bad-odds club gets the bug, struggles at home and ends up in a hospital. They’re still in the game, because if COVID-19 clogs up the lungs, a ventilator can help with breathing.
Not so fast. Up to now, we’ve worried that the main problem with ventilators is that there aren’t enough of them. But that’s only part of the story. Here’s something written April 4 by Dr. Kathryn Dreger, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University, for the New York Times:
“It breaks my heart that Americans who get sick enough to need them won’t know what desperate situations they face, nor will they understand what ventilators can do to help, and what they can never fix.”
Lots of people die even when using ventilators, Dreger wrote, and some who leave the hospital die soon after. Longer-term survivors may suffer the downside of sedation, which is needed for someone to be able to tolerate ventilators; aftereffects can include trouble with walking, and with thinking and with resisting future infections.
When I read that, I was astonished. And grateful. Now I can rewrite my “advance healthcare directive” to avoid ventilators or similar treatment if doctors believe there’s a good chance they’ll turn a good life into a bad joke.
Don’t get me wrong. I cherish my life. If you meet any of our three children, your day has just gotten better. Same with our granddaughter and her husband. My wife, Judy? When they meet her, babies smile and cats purr.
I’ve lived in paradise, first in Vermont, now in Newport. For 35 years, I was a reporter at the Providence Journal, when newspapers were at their historic peak and the Journal was one of the great ones, and you still can see some of that legacy in today’s badly shrunken version.
I can’t remember a better time than Judy and I have been enjoying during our weeks of semi-lockdown. We’re cooking, she’s doing yoga, I’m writing, walking the dog, we’re watching high-grade streaming TV, keeping in touch with distant friends. And such touching gestures from “away:” our daughter in Massachusetts sent gloves and masks; from London, our granddaughter arranged a local food delivery to keep us out of supermarkets.
So much to look forward to: that birthday; our daughter’s birthday in the next month; and Judy’s and our granddaughter’s a few months after that. There’s the next call from my sister in Vermont and from our son on the other side of town. And we can’t wait for the election on Nov. 3.
Most people who get COVID-19 survive and may not even know they’ve had it. A subset of us in “the club” face a more difficult course. But thanks to Dr. Dreger for supplying the difficult-to-hear facts about what might lie ahead.
Now, although our choices are limited, at least they are ours to make.