When my cousins in Houston told me last fall that doctors suggested bringing their father home from the hospital and beginning hospice care, I immediately tried to figure out a way to get there.
It would be a complicated and risky trip, though. COVID struck my aunt and uncle in Texas a week after my husband and I got the virus in Missouri.
My uncle -- Abbas taya, my father’s older brother -- is 84 with a history of asthma and respiratory illness, and has struggled with memory issues in recent years. When his blood oxygen level dropped into the 50s -- a normal oxygen saturation is between 95% and 100% -- my cousin called an ambulance.
COVID pneumonia had infiltrated his weakened lungs. Doctors put him on 100% high-flow oxygen. He was a small step away from needing a ventilator, and a half step from the intensive care unit. His prognosis looked bleak.
It’s hard to imagine Abbas taya so sick and frail. When we were growing up, he was the life of the party, exuding joie de vivre and wanting others to enjoy life as thoroughly as he did. The most charismatic person in any room, his energy drew people to him.
I couldn’t bear the thought of him dying alone in COVID isolation.
By the time he became critically ill, it had been nearly two weeks since my positive test. My husband was recovering at home with supplemental oxygen. The St. Louis County Health Department had released us from quarantine. Technically, I could have found a way to travel to Texas.
But it was unclear whether my uncle would be released from his quarantine, or if I had enough protective antibodies to avoid getting sick again. My parents urged me to stay put, as did one of my closest friends, a doctor who has treated COVID patients throughout the pandemic.
My heart ached to be closer to my uncle, but I knew they were right. I prayed for him from a distance and received daily updates from my cousins. His body was weak, but his will to live was still irrepressible.
Miraculously, his lungs began to clear. His improvement left his doctors dumbfounded. After nearly three weeks in the hospital, he was transferred to a rehab facility, where he stayed for another two weeks. The severity and length of his illness atrophied his muscles to the point where he could no longer walk or stand.
He came home needing full-time care for the most basic life functions, and his road to recovery has been rough. He ended up back in the hospital twice, both times with pneumonia.
With more than 30 million cases of COVID in America, there’s no telling how many Americans are suffering from long-term complications or have become permanently disabled from this virus. There’s no exact tally of these COVID “long haulers,” but it’s likely in the tens of thousands.
In normal times, I see my uncle and aunt twice a year when I go home to visit my family. With the pandemic, I hadn’t seen them in more than a year.
Separation is harder when you know a loved one is suffering.
When we finally visited for spring break in March, I was fully vaccinated, as were they. I was excited to see them again, but also preparing myself for a notable decline in my uncle’s health.
When we arrived, he was asleep in his reclining chair in the family room. I chatted with his health aide, who told me my uncle had been able to stand briefly using his walker recently, after months of being immobile. That’s encouraging.
I knew that after my visit, his aide would have to help him into a wheelchair and take him to his bed. The virus has fundamentally changed the quality of his twilight years.
Destruction even in the wake of survival.
When he woke up, he peered at me across the room and asked who I was.
“It’s me, Aisha,” I said, as I walked closer to him.
His face lit up with recognition. We both laughed with joy as I hugged him. We joked, recalled old memories and swapped COVID survivor stories.
With more people getting vaccinated, there will be a wave of these emotional reunions.
It was a moment I didn’t think I would have again.