On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to observe the world of doctors and nurses during the time of Covid 19 from a close up perspective. My husband Mike was scheduled to have a stent placed in one of the arteries of his heart. I had initially argued that I did not want him to have this procedure done at this time. I worried that he might be exposed to the virus and then have a difficult time recovering from it. My youngest daughter, a nurse, had a different point of view. She insisted that fixing his heart actually make him more likely to survive a case of Covid 19 if he were to become infected, and that furthermore it was time to get the surgery done now rather than later before the hospitals potentially become overwhelmed. Since my husband was eager to have the repairs done and my daughter supported his thinking, I did my best to overcome my many anxieties and fake the optimism that Mike had.
We arrived at the Walter Tower of Houston Methodist Hospital at the appointed time. The usual valet parking was unavailable, no doubt so that there would be no close interaction between employees of the garage and the patients. We found a spot to self park and proceeded to the main building where we were greeted by two nurses sitting at a table sporting surgical gowns, gloves, masks and plastic headgear with clear screens that covered the length of their faces much like I had seen during the ebola virus outbreak.
They asked us to stay at least six feet from the people both in front of and behind us. Once we reached the station they scanned our foreheads to determine whether either of us had a fever. If we had not passed that test both of us would have been told to return home and quarantine ourselves. Since our temperatures were normal we next answered a series of questions about travel and any symptoms of illness that we might have. I was honest in admitting that I have been coughing at night but noted that I do that all the time due to acid reflux. The nurse understood what I meant but nonetheless asked me to wear a mask inside the hospital.
There were few people in the hallways and every entrance was blocked and guarded by hospital personnel and security guards. Each incoming patient was allowed one and only one person to accompany him/her. Social distancing was being strictly enforced even as we lined up to check in at the admissions desk on the fourth floor where the catheter labs are located. The business administrators were kind and friendly and did their best to ease our anxieties and hide their own.
There were hundreds of chairs for patients and their families but fewer than twenty people who were waiting. We all kept away from one another with no problem and there was an unusually quiet and tense feeling overall. The smell of bleach was quite noticeable and a hard working woman circled about continually cleaning areas that people had left. The machines that might have provided us with coffee, tea or hot chocolate were unplugged. There would be no communal gathering around any part of the building.
We waited for quite some time and I observed that all but one pairing of patient and visitor was in what the world is now calling the elderly demographic. I sensed that nobody felt particularly comfortable about being there but understood that there were few other acceptable options. We simply stared blankly at one another pretending that the strange scene was normal.
Once my husband was called to prepare for his surgery I was allowed to accompany him to learn what was in store for both of us for the remainder of the day. The smell of disinfectant became ever more noticeable and the nurses and aides while very kind and determined to allay our fears became more clinical. I found out that once my husband left for the surgery I would have to return to the waiting room where I would stay until he was released later that evening.
By the time I found my way back to the holding area there were only four of us remaining and we avoided one another like the plague, no pun intended. In other circumstances we might have conversed about our common situation but on this day there was a more somber and silent tone to the environment. So I busied myself with my laptop and my phone until I would learn about the results of my husband’s surgery.
Eventually I was accompanied to a more private room where the doctor informed me what kind of damage he had found in my husband’s heart. I learned that all three of Mike’s main arteries were blocked at a level from eighty to one hundred percent. I could hardly breathe as I thought of how likely it had been for him to have an heart attack, a terrifying prospect in the middle of a pandemic. The doctor explained that he had opened up two of the arteries with stents and left the third as is because Mike’s body had actually developed new arteries around to compensate for the blockage. Then the cardiac surgeon indicated that he wanted Mike to get back home with me as soon as possible rather than staying in the hospital overnight as is the usual process. He noted that the times were strange indeed.
I went back to the waiting room and watched one after another person leave. Before long I was the only one left in the huge area that now felt eerie in its emptiness. A nurse came out periodically to assure me that my husband was doing well but apologized that it would be at least ten o’clock before he would be ready to leave the hospital. When I asked where I might get something to eat I was told that there were no open eateries in the hospital because of the virus and the snack machines were one floor below. I was cautioned not to go down because I might not be able to return to the floor where my Mike was recovering. Luckily I had brought two apples and an orange with me so I settled into a nice dinner of fruit while watching programs from Amazon Prime video with my laptop.
About the time that I began to believe that I would be spending the night in the cold and abandoned room a nurse came out to announce that we would soon be able to depart. She walked with me to procure my car because she feared that I would not be able to find an exit. In fact, we had to walk around the hospital for about twenty or thirty minutes before we were finally able to find a way out. All of the entrances and exits were locked up tight so that nobody might enter or leave without notice.
It was with enormous relief that I got into my car and drove to the main entrance of the Walter Tower where I texted the nurses to let them know that I was ready to take my husband home. They told me to be safe and to take it easy because everything was so crazy right now. I had an urge to hug them but knew that I could not. As I drove away I had a sense of their worry and their courage in overcoming the fears that were so obviously in their minds. I thanked them profusely for all that they had done and literally prayed that they would be okay.
Following their instructions my husband and I stripped off the clothes that we had been wearing as soon as we got home and put them immediately in the washing machine. I wiped down my phone, my laptop, my glasses, and the handbag in which I had carried everything. We were exhausted and literally collapsed into bed but I could not sleep as I thought of those wonderful people who had so lovingly cared for us all day long.
They are no doubt back at it today, not knowing how bad things may ultimately become. I will be rooting for them and doing my part to self isolate in an effort to prevent them from being overcome by sick and dying patients. I now understand their concerns and the processes they want us to follow that may save many lives. It’s not about me at all. It’s about everyone.