Of Covid-19 and Enchiladas

By Annette Libeskind Berkovits | December 21, 2020

Imagine yourself, just for a moment, unable to move your head, arms, or legs. Your speech barely audible. You lie on your bed in a sweat and your breathing is labored. You can’t call out for help. Have you ever had such a nightmare? If you have, you are lucky. It was just a dream. For my son, Jeremy, father of two children, this is his life every day.

Six years ago, a perfectly healthy 46-year-old rising star at Thompson Reuters stayed home so he could attend his daughters’ parent-teacher conference. He stepped into the shower to get ready. It was then that a thunderbolt out of the blue struck him—a massive hemorrhagic stroke that left him prostrate in the shower until the young girls realized daddy wasn’t coming out. Their frantic calls for help saved his life.

Fewer than 5 percent of people impacted by this kind of stroke survive. Jeremy fights to live every single day. He wants to see his daughters graduate. His hopes are limited by his condition and he is grateful for the loving care of his partner. In March, he asked me to help him work on lyrics for a song he wrote for his wife and daughters. I agreed not only because I’d do anything to help him, but because I am a writer and we are so close that I know his heart. As April approached, he stopped writing the song because he wasn’t feeling well. His doctor thought it might be Covid-19. On April 8th we celebrated the Passover Seder over Zoom with his masked wife holding the phone in front of him and his daughters crouching at the farthest corners of the room to avoid the infection.

One day later, my daughter-in-law called me in Florida to tell me Jeremy’s oxygen was falling. “His lips are bluish,” she said, “…I’m afraid.”

For someone in his physical condition any change in his health status was ominous. I froze. My heart palpitations went through the roof. I had been following the Covid-19 reports in the press and on television assiduously with great concern. Many of the aides who attended to Jeremy lived in areas of the city where Covid-19 infections were soaring. Their travel by public transportation could bring Covid-19 to his sickbed.

I sprang into action, long distance, calling any number of oxygen providers in New York. By then New York hospitals had seen an avalanche of Covid-19 cases and oxygen machines for private use were in extremely low supply. “You must be kidding, we have none left,” was the common refrain.  I purchased one for an exorbitant price, had it shipped to my son’s home and held my breath, praying the extra oxygen would help. The oxygen machine arrived on Good Friday. It did not help.

On Easter Sunday, when Jeremy’s oxygen dropped precipitously, he was taken by ambulance to Lenox Hill hospital. To her shock, his wife was not allowed to accompany him even into the entry vestibule to provide the barest information on his medical history, or his two dozen daily medications. The door shut in her face. He was left alone and completely helpless. Thus commenced the two longest weeks of my life.

For two days we had no idea of Jeremy’s status. You have no sense how long forty-eight hours can be as you wait to hear if your loved one is alive. Sleepless nights. More palpitations. My daughter-in-law received a brief, perfunctory call from a doctor two days after she left Jeremy at the ER door. No clear diagnosis, no treatment plan.

Ever since the seriousness of Covid-19 became widely known, many of Jeremy’s aides stopped coming. Before Jeremy was hospitalized, his wife paid huge Uber fares to and from the aides’ homes to get them to come in for their shifts, but the expense proved unsustainable. On many days and nights my daughter-in-law had to carry the burden of his care by herself. By day she worked from home at her demanding job, and cared for Jeremy and their two daughters. She had neither time, nor energy, left to keep calling the hospital for updates. That became my job.

Knowing how overwhelmed the doctors and nurses were in mid-April, I felt awkward every time my call rang at the nursing station. Would it be taking them away from a patient in urgent need? Perhaps the patient was my own son who was unable to even push the call button. On two occasions in the course of two weeks I managed to get an exhausted nurse, suited up like an alien from another planet, to carry the phone into my son’s room. I saw him!! He was still alive, but she couldn’t provide much except the most minimal information. Still, I saw him. He was alive. His beard had grown, but his eyes still had that electric blue light.

On one occasion I managed to persuade the nurse to call Jeremy’s wife so she and his girls could see him. I don’t know her name, but she’ll remain in my memory forever. Two tired eyes behind a visor, face obscured by a double mask. Her kind voice, full of understanding. “I’m sorry, I only have a moment,” she said.

When his condition was worsened by the hydroxychloroquine he’d been given, I embarked on my mad scramble for the drug remdesivir. Though it is now generally available, it was not available in April except for drug trials. I reached out to old connections from my job, people who had family links to medical research professionals, and to friends who had friends in high places. Though I’d never do it for myself, I knocked on every door I could. I called, I sent text messages and emails. I felt embarrassed for hounding people who had lives of their own.

I spent days and nights putting my science and research skills to work: azithromycin, chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir/ritonavir, tradipitant, bamlanivimab, cytokine storms, the farthest distances coronavirus droplets could travel, how long they remained on different surfaces. Not a single news article or a new research paper on the subject of the devilish virus escaped my notice. When all my attempts to obtain remdesivir failed, I reached out to Jeremy’s neurosurgeon, a man who hadn’t been directly involved in his Covid-19 care.

Neurosurgeons live lives of stress, dealing with patients on the brink. I hadn’t wanted to bother him with a matter that wasn’t in his direct purview. He had given me his private phone number six years ago, when Jeremy was in a coma for weeks on end, and I promised not to abuse it. Guiltily, I broke the promise and texted him an SOS message. He worked in the same hospital where Jeremy lay so ill. I should have known he’d step in. He fought hospital politics to get Jeremy into a study of antibodies from that handful of people who had recovered from Covid-19. I was grateful and cautiously optimistic.

Imagine my shock when my daughter-in-law called me exactly two weeks after Jeremy’s admission to the hospital. Always fearing the worst, my heart racing, I asked, “What now?”

“A nurse called from the hospital saying they are waiting for an ambulance to send him back home, but he has a request: Can you order his favorite Mexican meal?”

I wanted to jump for joy and laugh. Instead, I scrolled through my contacts to find his favorite Mexican restaurant, MazMezcal.

“Please send enchiladas and ropa vieja ASAP,” I told the astonished owner.

He’d been a regular and she knew him.

“I’ll throw in a bottle of sangria,” she said.

I could not have expected this miraculous survival. But not everyone is as “lucky.” The restaurant owner’s husband, a most charming man, was sent to the same hospital a few weeks later with Covid-19. His wife encouraged him. “If Jeremy can make it, so will you.” Sadly, it was not the case.

We go about our lives, some scrupulous about mask wearing and social distancing, others not, but how many of us truly reflect on the devastating losses to so many families? That is something to think about, especially as we approach the New Year. Please stay safe. Wear a mask. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Stay away from vulnerable individuals and for God’s sake take the vaccine when it becomes available.

Copyright © 2020 Annette Libeskind Berkovits
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