MEMPHIS –This is a reporter column written by reporter Micaela Watts, who spent the last year covering the COVID-19 pandemic in Memphis from her home office until a phone call sent her to one of the area’s COVID-19 neighborhoods.
The nurse began to prepare me as we made our way through the maze of the brand new Shorb Tower at the Methodist University Hospital.
I was told that a family member could visit her one day, one hour a day while she was in hospice care. But his oxygen was sinking, quickly. The staff had alerted my father, who called me and said, “You should be the one to leave.”
So I was there.
As we jerked around from corner to corner, the nurse said, “Stay as long as you need to.”
He knew that she – my grandmother – was not long for this world. She had been admitted to hospital exactly one week before after testing positive. She had received a single injection of the Pfizer vaccine in February. She had felt ill on the day of her second date and had canceled her appointment. My family was plotting to get her out of her apartment to try again.
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I asked the nurse who drove me, Brett, a young man with a woman and a child at home, “Have you been in the COVID unit for the duration of the pandemic?”
Yes, he said. He had worked in COVID units within the two largest hospital systems in the region, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare and Baptist Memorial Health Care. He had managed to avoid contracting the virus at that time. It had been a long year worrying about him infecting his family.
The doors to the COVID unit on the sixth floor looked like a commercial walk-in refrigerator. Heavy, opaque, no windows. On the side of the doors, tubs stacked in columns were full of personal protective equipment. The excess was strangely comforting.
I thought back to the start of the pandemic when the scarcity of PPE was reported everywhere. Weekly emails from the staff of Methodist CEO Michael Ugwueke included updates on the status of each hospital’s PPE supply. I was always relieved to open his emails and see “green” indicators for supplies of surgical masks, N95 masks, gowns and gloves.
Brett helped me choose an N95 mask that was right for me. I tucked my arms into the sleeves of a vaporous yellow dress. Then I put on a pair of small purple latex gloves.
“Are you ready?” he then asked. I was not. I still nodded. Brett waved a badge and pushed open the doors.
The COVID unit was bright and clean. And although Brett warned me that I could hear a lot of different alarms and beeps, it was oddly quiet.
He opened the door to my grandmother’s room.
“Miss Evelyn? he said. “Someone is here to see you.”
My eyes focused on the shape of her body under the hospital blankets. She had been small, on the high end all her life. With age, it has shrunk.
As my gaze moved up the bed, I became aware for the first time of the low roar of his oxygen supply. It reminded me of the closed air system of airplanes, the whistle they make when planes idle on runways.
I went to her. Under the oxygen mask, his lips were dark. She took a rough, gritty breath, I heard her drown in her own body.
Right now, two worlds that I am trying to separate have collapsed: my job and my family. I was face to face with COVID-19, a set of genetic codes contained in a strand of virus that brought the modern world to its knees. And now there was my grandmother, my Mimi.
Over the past 13 months, reporting on COVID-19 alongside my colleagues has meant meticulously entering data on spreadsheets. It meant decoding health guidelines for the public. It meant a lot of worry and a better understanding of how the virus works than I ever wanted to know. It also meant listening to a lot of grief. Now it was my heart breaking.
In her mostly sedated state, Mimi grabbed my gloved hand and latched onto it. She was only allowed to visit now that she was in palliative care. She had been alone in this room for six days, no visit from her family. I looked up to see a few other staff entering the room. The palliative care doctor, Dr. Blair, put a hand on my back.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep her comfortable. She will not suffer.
I burst into tears.
I looked at Dr Blair. To my surprise, I saw his eyes fill with tears. After a year of the pandemic and her career in palliative care, she was still touched by a granddaughter saying goodbye to her.
“I can’t imagine what it feels like to do this for a whole year,” I managed to say.
“Families like yours are worth it,” she replied. “Your grandmother is so sweet and fiery. We became attached to her.
Brett lifted a hospital chair and placed it under me. He fixed a pitcher of water and left it on the counter in case I needed a sip. He showed me where the extra gloves were, in case I needed to change mine.
“Listen,” he said. “If it’s too hard and you have to go… I’ll stay with her.” I promise you, she won’t go out alone.
I thanked him for this assurance and sat down in my chair.
Over the next hour and a half, I held her hand and spoke out loud. Mimi relied on hearing aids and our regular phone calls were a lot of screaming. While she was hospitalized, phone calls were almost impossible. Between her faulty hearing and the breath of oxygen, I knew I needed to scream. I wondered if anyone passing outside their room could hear me shout Psalm 23.
“I love you,” I shouted. “I love you and I can go now.”
I watched a single tear begin to fall from the corner of each of his closed eyes. She tried to speak, tried to sit down. She was already half gone.
I thought of the dozens of times I had typed out information about increased risks to the elderly. I thought of all the times I had heard people inaccurately describe COVID-19 as if it only affects the elderly, and as if that is reason enough not to take on a pandemic. seriously.
Mimi was my senior, and I had dutifully avoided seeing her for a year, even though I feared it would be her last. She was, after all, 100 years old. The time had already come for her, it was true. But has it made it easier for you to watch your loved one die from this virus? Not for me.
We didn’t want staff to submit important life-saving measures to him. To intubate a centenarian would have been cruel. More importantly, it wasn’t what she wanted.
When Brett then entered the room to administer his next dose of morphine, I knew it was time.
“Brett…” I started, turning to him. “You can turn it off now.”
Brett nodded and pivoted to the control panel for his oxygen. The hissing stopped. The silence that followed was the loudest sound I have ever heard.
“She’s going to go fast now,” he said. I nodded and kept Mimi’s small hand in my grip. She gripped, hard.
I watched her take fewer and fewer breaths until there were no noticeable ones. His grip relaxed.
I felt a hand on my back again. It was Brett. I looked at him and he nodded. He had nothing to say.
I collapsed in my chair and he hugged me. He reassured me that, as there had been no intubation, no prolonged fighting, Mimi’s passing was one of the most peaceful he had seen in a solid year of watching the people die.
In a blur, I was escorted into the lobby by Brett and Dr Blair, both wiping their eyes with me.
I took the day after work. The next day, I wanted to go home. I needed a distraction.
At 10 a.m. sharp that day, the health department sent out its usual tweet with today’s COVID-19 numbers as well as the daily press email. I opened it.
One new death has been reported due to complications from COVID-19.
Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. You can reach her at [email protected]