On November 8, while concluding a mission trip out of the country, I received a text from my sister, Becky: “Tested positive for COVID-19. No idea where I got it. New guy [whom she’d been orienting in her office] has it too.” Symptoms? “Yep, cough, headache, just thought it was bronchitis.”
November 12, low grade fever and extreme fatigue. O2 levels still in the 90s.
November 16, call from her husband. “Just put Becky in an ambulance to the ER. Trouble breathing, O2 level dropped below 90.” Through tears he cried words that will forever echo in my ears, “I’m afraid I won’t see her again.” No one would be allowed to be with her. This was COVID.
November 17, she was placed on a ventilator by mask (CPAP) and later moved to the ICU. For a few days we would communicate through texts because she was too short of breath to talk on the phone. She expressed how uncomfortable the mask was.
November 20, still on ventilator by mask, but O2 level was dropping into the 70s whenever the mask came off.
November 23, Becky submitted a rare (and her final) post on Facebook. “I almost died of COVID last week. JUST. WEAR. THE. DAMN. MASK.”
November 24, I get a call from the pulmonologist in ICU. They had to perform an emergency tracheostomy to ventilate her, she was too difficult to intubate. She would be sedated . . .
Surely she would pull out of this, her heart was strong, other vital organs working normally. Just the lungs were not working . . .very . . well. . .
The following days were a roller coaster of hopes and dashed hopes that weaning from the ventilator would be a slow but steady progress. All subsequent communication and updates on Becky’s condition were funneled through ICU nurses and physicians taking care of her. But all attempts to wean her from the ventilator proved futile.
Discussions with the physicians devolved from plans of long term care after discharge to advanced directives to hospice. One of Becky’s nurses said she would arrange with hospital administration to get a special dispensation for me to be with Becky at the end. And on the night of December 5th, I left for the 7.5-hour drive to the hospital.
Hospital lobbies are usually bustling with activity, staff and visitors coming and going at all hours. There was no one in this ghost town of a lobby on December 6th, empty except for a lone receptionist at the front desk. No one in any waiting areas—no visitors allowed. The receptionist looked stricken. She knew why I was there. She made a phone call. Once permissions verified and granted, I proceeded upstairs to the ICU.
I’d been in healthcare, radiography then nursing, for a long time. I was no stranger to hospitals or the ICU, nor to isolation precautions with full PPE. But nothing in my career had prepared me for what I experienced on that final day of Becky’s life.
Every ICU bed was full, every patient on a ventilator. The cacophony of beeps and blips of monitors and machines relentless. The whoosh of isolation gowns being donned and doffed, the whir of multiple ventilators.
I was provided full PPE of my own, I knew the drill. I entered my sister’s room and as the large touch-free glass door closed behind me, I tentatively approached the bed where she lay. In spite of the sedation-induced sleep, she stirred e’re so slightly when she heard my voice. I knew she could hear me talk as I watched the rise and fall of her chest in perfect rhythm with every whoosh of the ventilator. I assured her we loved her and would miss her terribly but we’d all be okay. I almost apologized for every older-sister infraction I’d ever heaped upon her.
I nodded to the nurse waiting outside the door. She carried in the small syringe of sedation medicine that would help relax my sister further and, hopefully, prevent the air-hunger that often occurs when a ventilator is turned off. The effect was almost immediate—a few final reflexive breaths—then all breathing stopped. Her heart was strong and, as I expected, it took several minutes for her heart to stop as well. Time of death: 11:03.
The deafening silence that followed reverberated in my ears like a hundred tribal death drums. Yet, I knew I was one of the privileged few that could be with a loved one when they died from this coronavirus called COVID-19.
Less than 4 weeks prior, Becky had been alive, well, vibrant, and working full-time. She was fiercely devoted to her job and her family. I found out a little later she had just been promoted to general manager of her company, a company that is vital to the supply and distribution of PPE to areas where it is needed most. But she never told anyone because that’s just the kind of person she was. So many will miss her.
This virus is real and it is deadly. Do your part to prevent another needless death: Distance, don’t congregate, sanitize your hands often, and JUST. WEAR. THE. DAMN. MASK. Get the vaccine when it becomes available to you. Prove that you’re really Pro-Life.