By the time this goes to press my Dad will no longer be here. I’m sitting with my father in Michigan while he lives out his final few days. I’m in his bedroom in the house I grew up in. My father and mother lived here for over 50 years. I arrived about 14 days ago. My father is dying of COVID. He is one of the fortunate ones if you can call it that. He had a mild form of the disease. Still he, for two months now, has suffered the long-term effect of this virus which has sapped him of any energy or a desire to eat or drink. To recover from COVID and its devastating effects on the human body, one must be able to eat and drink at levels far above what is normally needed. You can motivate yourself to do this if you are young and vital, not so much if you are already older and tired. I’ve now witnessed, from a personal level, just what this virus does to someone. The results are devastating. The person you once knew becomes a mere shadow of themselves. It’s tragic to witness.
Why did my Dad get COVID? It’s hard to really pinpoint. All it takes is one small lapse in the precautions. In my Dad’s case, it was his hearing loss and the loneliness that can plague the elderly after the loss of a spouse. This pandemic has been especially hard on the hearing impaired. This group often requires lip reading to be able to communicate effectively. The mask issue has socially isolated this group even further than they already were, erasing any chance of lip reading. Additionally, the mask itself attenuates speech by perhaps 5-10dB. In my father’s case, many people were in and out of the house, case workers, caretakers and family. He would often request they take off their masks so he could understand them. During the 10 months of this pandemic, transmission was inevitable. Learning about his disease two months ago was devastating but not surprising.
So why is my Dad one of the lucky ones? He was fortunate enough to get through the disease with only a short hospitalization. Subsequently he has been able to stay in his own home the final two months. Many COVID patients are not granted that same privilege. They often remain hospitalized in isolation and may say goodbye to their loved ones by way of FaceTime communication, perhaps while intubated and in an intensive care unit. We’ve all seen the photos in the media, and it’s absolutely tragic. These patients may spend weeks hospitalized, fighting the disease in a foreign place separated from their loved ones. They are surrounded by unfamiliar people dressed in protective gear, dehumanizing them, further adding to their sense of isolation.
My father is in his own home, surrounded by family and friends, and is reasonably comfortable. Everyone is sharing stories, photos, important messages. Until his final day, my father still has advice for people, but that’s just him. Physically, his last few years had been very hard, even before COVID, but his mind has always remained razor sharp. Here’s an example of this guy. It’s 7 a.m., it’s been quite a rough night (although he’ll never complain). He has something to tell me. He’s so weak that I really can’t understand him. As I lean in, I finally figure out that he wants me to read to him and people have been reading him books on astrophysics or the order of time, topics he’d requested. I pulled out one of those, but the choice wasn’t right. After a few more attempts, I understand that he wants me to read to him about the Peloponnesian War, about 400BC. This is what you’re thinking about right now? Just the thought made me both laugh and cry.
This virus has stolen so much value from this planet. Contrary to popular culture, true value is in the elderly, individuals with life experience. Those that can share with the young, with the goal of making this world a better place. This is wisdom we can’t replace and will never get back.
So, as I sit here with my father, I’m reading about the antivax movement sweeping through California. This state has been a hotbed of the antivax movement far before COVID. As the state continues to set daily case records and the number of deaths is averaging now over 500 per day, how can these people in their right minds push against a vaccine which has proven to be 95% effective with an amazing safety profile record? Our only safeguards against this thing are what we already know, masks, social distancing and now thankfully some wonderful vaccines. Please, please, please use them all.
It’s so hard being a physician, sitting here with my father and seeing this process evolve. I know I can temporarily correct much of it. But that’s not what I’m here for. I need to, for just this moment, be his son and not his doctor. Dad doesn’t want to be in a hospital. The TV in his room has been tuned to soft images of the amazing world in which we live with relaxing music. I’m making sure he’s comfortable and feels secure. That’s my job now. I know Dad must have sat with me many times when I came into this world, it’s the least I can do to sit with him while he leaves it.
Dedicated to my parents, Charles and Irene Hurbis, with love