Behind each is a patient who is unable to breathe on their own and is kept alive by a ventilator connected to an intrusive tube that runs down their windpipe and into their lungs. Each room is nearly identical: a person, lying on their stomachs or backs, sedated and immobile, with a dozen patches and pipes sprouting from them and blankets covering their bare bodies.
The nurse tells me that the most of them will not make it out alive. COVID-19 patients who require a ventilator have a near-100 percent mortality rate in this ICU on the Gulf Coast’s southern coast. Hundreds of them have spent time here in the last year. Seven of them made it out alive.
Through a mask, the nurse muffles, “I want people could walk in my shoes for a day.”
The nurse is pleasant, yet direct. She, like many others in the medical community, is frustrated. There are 25 patients with COVID-19 in this ICU. She stops for a moment before continuing: 24 of them are unvaccinated.
That includes the patient in front of her, the one with braided red curls and pale complexion, the one with rosaries draped over her bedside, lying flat on her stomach, her left ear and cheek exposed, and an oxygen tube inserted in her mouth.
She is a mother of a teenager in her forties. To a husband, she is a wife. A mother of an 81-year-old daughter. Three older siblings call her sister. Hundreds of people consider him a buddy.
And one lucky nephew has an aunt, a godmother, and a kindred spirit.
‘A small, painless shot in the arm’
Normally, I write for Sports Illustrated about college football. I’ve always been interested in athletics as the son of a long-time high school football coach. I frequently use phrases like touchdown, field goal, and kickoff in my stories, rather than ICU, disease, and death.
This isn’t a vaccine-related tale. It isn’t a virus-related story. It’s also not a story about just one person. It’s a story about all of them.
It’s a sad tale, like so many others in today’s Godforsaken world. Sadness is all around us. Sickness is all around us. These stories are being told all around our obstinate country and the rest of the planet. There are tens of thousands of them, and this is only one of them.
It all comes to an end in pain. It culminates in the most excruciating, incapacitating suffering a human can endure.
Some people believe they have a better understanding of what happens after we die. Heaven, hell, and purgatory are the three realms of existence. The truth is that no one knows for sure. What we do know about death is how it affects people who are still alive. It’s depressing. That is something we are aware of. And this is excruciating.
No one could compare to my aunt. And by no one, I mean no one.
What words do you use to describe someone who can make you laugh and cry at the same time? A woman who has dedicated her life to assisting poor children and adolescents with special needs?
Do you know the famous Jim Valvano speech? At the 1993 ESPY Awards, the former college basketball coach, then sick and dying of cancer, told millions the secret to life: If you laugh, think and cry every single day, you’ve lived, he said.
Do you recall Jim Valvano’s famous speech? The former collegiate basketball coach, who was then sick and dying of cancer, addressed millions of people the secret to life at the 1993 ESPY Awards: “If you laugh, think, and cry every single day, you’ve lived,” he remarked.
That was exemplified by my aunt. Every party needs a laugher, a thinker, and a cryer. She continued to give. She was the only person who adored me as much as she did.
We were only 11 years apart in age. She introduced me to animated Disney movies when I was seven years old, when she was eighteen. Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King are three of Disney’s most popular animated films. We’d load up the VCR with old VHS tapes and settle in for a wonderful 90 minutes.
I was 14 when she was 25, and she used to tell me that the bullies at school were just huge dummies.
And when she was 48 and I was 37, I told her that a simple, painless shot in the arm would keep her safe.
I never wanted to be pushy about it—and boy, do I regret it now—but I reminded her every time I saw her over the previous six months that the small injection could save her life.
She flatly refused. She stated that the long-term implications are unknown. I reminded her that she was correct, but we do know the consequences of COVID-19: illness, hospitalization, and death.
Her brother, too, pleaded with her. He made fun at her over it, as he always did. “I hope you make it out if you ever get hospitalized with the virus,” he informed her, “so I can tell you, ‘I told you so.’”
Saying goodbye in the ICU
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, health organizations around the United States are reporting 150,000 new COVID-19 cases every day, the highest incidence since last winter. Hospitalizations are also reaching the pandemic’s previous peak, with several facilities across the country running out of beds and on the verge of having to restrict care. The seven-day average of daily COVID-19-related deaths is reaching 1,550 as of this writing.
Those over the age of 12 are, of course, protected by the authorized immunizations. Unvaccinated persons were nearly ten times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people, according to the latest statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was released on Sept. 10. They were also roughly five times more likely to be sick. Despite this, 37.5 percent of people in the United States who are currently eligible for the COVID-19 immunization have not received it.
My family is a perfect example of how to comprehend this trend. Nine adults slept in a condominium for a family vacation to the beach in late July. Seven people were immunized. Three of the nine were later found to have COVID-19. Two people, both of whom had been vaccinated, had moderate cold symptoms. The unvaccinated third was admitted to the hospital a week later.
My aunt had a positive test fourteen days before they carried her into ICU, drugged her, and intubated her by placing a tube into her lungs. She was completely alert in the days preceding up to that point, laboring to breathe but able to text from her hospital bed.
We exchanged messages along the way. I asked her if she needed me to bring a bike pump to the hospital and fill her lungs with air. She replied, jokingly, “I think that would help.” A day before they put her into ICU, I sent flowers, a card, and chocolates. She texted me a thank you note as she was eating the chocolates. The card, which I wrote with inspiration from a sitcom we both enjoyed, Seinfeld, was a big hit with her.
She was a music lover who lamented the lack of “positive vibrations” in the ICU (eventually, we set up a transistor radio for her, and it played and played while she lay sedated).
I sent her another text a few days later, this one more serious, few hours before intubation. There isn’t enough room for everything here. I’m not sure I’ll ever reveal the entire contents of it. But I informed her that she means more to me than almost everyone else on the planet, and that she is a big part of who I am now. I texted that it had rubbed off on me.
That very little shot was discussed briefly in that note. I wrote to her because I was having contradictory emotions. I was depressed and upset, and I texted, “and you know why.”
Finally, I told her that she needed to fight. Fight valiantly. And your family will be waiting for you when you get out of there, I wrote.
She didn’t reply to that text. I’d like to imagine she read it and went into anesthesia with the knowledge of how much she mattered to me.
I’ll never know in truth.
I walked into the ICU two weeks later to say my goodbyes.
It was just me and her for a little while, and the transistor radio was blasting sounds across the room: Let’s dance in style. Let’s have a little dance party. Heaven will be there in due time. We’re just keeping an eye on the sky.
Her deceased body had been placed on her back so that family members may weep over her. She was sedated and immobile, linked to a dozen devices, on the verge of death. The ventilator’s hum raised and lowered her chest.
I hadn’t seen her alive since then.