News that the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is swamping hospitals nationwide has made me think of some of the difficult days I spent in a hospital as a University of Minnesota medical center spokesperson.
And until I became my mother’s caregiver when she had a stroke in June 2014, I was able to avoid hospitals, save for visiting healthy friends and their newborns.
After five years of stable health, my mother embarked on a serious decline after my brother’s May 2019 death. Earlier this month, she was in emergency for the first time since her stroke. On her second visit the other week, and after my remaining brother and I learned she has advanced congestive heart failure and we subsequently decided to put her into hospice, I got up close and personal with this variant. Or, as many would put it, my encounter was with Unvaccinated America. An America also, as it were, calling for health care rationing.
While letting my brother take a turn with my mother in emergency, I sat outside the hospital on a very early morning, looking to the nearby Catalina Foothills for reassurance from family gone to the other side that I was doing the right thing. A couple who appeared to be in their late 30s sat at a distance from me and asked if I was with “the really elderly lady” they saw being wheeled into one of the department’s private rooms. I said they probably were speaking about my mother. I expected to hear a perfunctory “sorry to hear your mom is sick” sort of response. Oh no.
I soon was subjected to something between a diatribe and a cri de coeur about their presence at the hospital, that being because the man’s sister was in with a very serious case of COVID-19. And that her illness shouldn’t have happened at all because she was healthier “than most fat Americans, because she is a competitive athlete.” They added that she shouldn’t have needed any vaccines because vaccines (allegedly) are tools of Big Corporate Healthcare, and that “if someone we could believe had only told us” the virus could sicken “really athletic people like us,” well, they could have tried homeopathy. I thought for a few seconds about the piece I did for MinnPost in January about no longer engaging in arguments with those for whom reason is confused with season. But I was tired and distraught and I entered the joust. After all, I am an opinion writer and a former high school debater.
I started by telling them my mother and I had been fully vaccinated and that my mother was not in the hospital because of the coronavirus. Then I explained I was no genius but that it seemed clear they believed enough in hospitals and conventional medicine to entrust their sister’s life to such care. And then I asked if they decided the prep their sister was undergoing for a very invasive ventilator was worth their anti-vaccination position. The woman said, “Well, I guess we’re going to have to get vaccinated now. But we still don’t believe in it.” The man then asked if I felt “justified” in having my mother take up “valuable medical resources” when “people like my sister who have more of a right to live are in the hospital.”
Now, some might think I would have been livid at this impertinence. But I wasn’t. Not entirely. I don’t know if it’s because I’m of a certain age or because I witnessed so many questions of appropriate medical resource use come into play when I was at the university that I kept most of my powder dry. I told them in as Rod Serling-calm of a voice as I could that I didn’t disagree with their position about wise use of medical care that is certain to become even more scarce as this variant and others spike their way throughout the nation.
I told them the only reason my mother was in the hospital was because hospice had not yet delivered the equipment needed to keep her out of hospital and that I brought her there because, while I know her time here is likely not long, I didn’t want her to die while choking for breath. I told them that once she was stabilized later that day, I’d be taking her home. I also said their sister’s medical resource-intensive hospitalization was, to be blunt, almost certainly avoidable. Then I thought about how many other similar discussions might be going on outside hospitals at that very moment, given reports about non-urgent treatments and surgeries being postponed due to the variant’s surge.
The man glared at me awhile and said, “You might be right. We’re just angry. Life isn’t supposed to be this hard.”
I wanted to say, well, welcome to reality, young one. But I only wished their sister well and said that most of us don’t get out of this life without experiencing difficulty.
Still, I worry about how many encounters such as the one I had might take far more sinister turns should viral matters become more deadly. And how long any measure of peace might hold between the two Americas of vaccinated and not.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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