by Shoshana Forester Smith
This story originally appeared on Kveller.
Since the coronavirus has effectively shut down life across the globe, a lot of us are either in quarantine or self-isolation with our immediate family. (And if you’re not doing your part to flatten the curve, honestly, you need to get with the program.)
In our busy world, this gift of time to be with our families is the upside of an otherwise dreadful situation. I’m self-isolating, too, but my situation is extreme: I am separated from my husband.
I am 37 years old and, as a result of some complex and severe medical problems, I live in a chronic care unit at a long-term care hospital in Winnipeg, Canada, called Riverview Health Centre. It’s essentially akin to a medical unit for those with needs that cannot be met in the community, are too complex for a nursing home and are stable enough not to need to stay in an acute care hospital.
I live here so I can get my IV therapy and tubefeed and other care needs met by 24/7 nursing care. There is also always a doctor available on-site. People here have a variety of diagnoses, ranging from multiple sclerosis, quadriplegia, COPD and gastroparesis to diabetes. The goal is to provide individualized care that promotes the best quality of life possible.
I have lived here since March 2017. Before coming here, I spent eight years spending upwards of 10 months a year in the hospital. So this definitely was a move to enhance my quality of life. My husband and I were happy that the facility had a very liberal visiting policy — basically I could have visitors whenever I wanted.
Before COVID-19, my many visitors was a joke among the staff. In addition to regular visits from my family and friends, my husband, Brent, typically came by multiple times a day. He came every morning before work for a quick visit and to bring me a cup of coffee. Sometimes he would come back for lunch, as he works nearby. And after work he would stop by the grocery store for some food and spend the evening with me until it was bedtime. On the weekends, he was here all day and all evening, save for running some errands and board meetings at our synagogue.
Like all marriages, we had our routines. Certain days we watched certain shows. We went for walks. I would read interesting news stories aloud (I am a news junkie). We talked about everything. He would rub my feet, change my bedsheets and made sure I always had plenty of seltzer in the fridge. We even took naps together (he has his own comfy chair at the foot of my bed). We hugged and kissed goodnight every night.
In January, however, things slowly started to change, as we learned about the mysterious virus wreaking havoc in China, and then South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy. Late February brought even more cause for concern, as we watched the news of the virus in nursing homes in Washington state, and then in British Columbia. I began to worry about what would happen if the virus got in here, as most of the nearly 400 patients and residents who live here are at high risk for complications or death from COVID-19.
On March 22, our visiting hours were cut to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., down from 24 hours. Then they started screening all visitors for respiratory symptoms and fever, as well as their travel history. Everyone was expected to also use hand sanitizer before and after leaving the unit. The next day, we were only allowed one visitor at a time. By the end of visiting hours on March 23, the edict went up: no visitors of any kind until further notice. In order to protect us, as well as the staff, we have to control the flow of people in and out of the facility.
So on Monday, at 5:55 p.m., I said goodbye to my husband from six feet away, not knowing when I would see him again. No hug, no kiss, no touching whatsoever because it wasn’t worth the risk. I couldn’t even watch him leave. Even as I write this, the tears are flooding down. I hate to think about this, but if I do end up getting sick, or if anything bad happens to me, I will be facing it alone and without ever seeing or feeling the touch of my beloved ever again. Or anyone else, for that matter.
It’s not just not seeing my husband, which is bad enough. I don’t get to see anyone: my parents, my in-laws, my sisters, my friends or my rabbi. This is proving to be really hard. Yes, I’m keeping as busy and as connected as possible, but it’s not the same. At times, it hits me like a pile of bricks: I am overwhelmed by loneliness, sadness, and fear.
It’s been well over a week since I have had a hug. Everything I hear, watch, and read tells me this could go on for months. And the fear of COVID-19 getting into my facility is real. It’s decimating long-term care facilities elsewhere.
On the other hand, I am relieved by these extreme measures, because all it takes is one person — knowingly or unknowingly sick — to bring the walls around here crashing down. If COVID-19 gets in here, it is likely that many people here will get very sick and some of those people will die. We also have to protect the health of the staff who look after us. Everyone is making sacrifices right now, so we have to do our part. Making sacrifices to save lives is in fact a very Jewish thing to do.
“Pikuach nefesh” (saving a life) is a principle of Jewish law that the preservation of life basically supersedes any religious rules. So while it may feel bad to not go to shul on Shabbat, or not hold a shiva for a deceased relative, God understands. Heck, God is giving us a pass. Judaism is so rooted in community that I think people are grieving the loss of the things we normally take for granted like our JCCs, our Shuls, book clubs, delis, Hebrew schools and so on.
But the shutdown is inspiring a lot of innovation and creativity. Synagogues are livestreaming services, rabbis are doing FaceTime tutoring and visits, virtual bar mitzvahs are celebrated. Chesed organizations are popping up to get provisions to vulnerable Jews who cannot get food or medications due to self-isolation or quarantine. As Jews, we are rising to the occasion (we have a tradition of doing that when times are tough).
I am pretty much glued to my phone these days. FaceTime, texting and Messenger are my mainstays for keeping up with my husband, family, and friends. Another cool app is Marco Polo, which lets you record and share videos that people can watch at their convenience. There are so many ways to stay connected. That is the one bright spot. We have all this technology to help us keep in touch. In that sense, we are blessed.
My room looks out onto a lovely courtyard. While spring has officially sprung, there is still snow on the ground. But that doesn’t deter my husband from trekking through the snow every day so we can see each other from my second floor window and do our daily wave. We try to FaceTime, too, although with everyone in the world using the internet, sometimes the connection can be a bit slow. We text a lot.
And we’re going old school and doing something we almost never did anymore: We are talking to each other on the phone. I wasn’t the biggest fan of telephone calls before all this happened but I am becoming a convert. We are also writing each other letters and he’s leaving me care packages. In other words, we are making the best of the situation. And in some ways, I think we are becoming more thoughtful of each other. If there is any takeaway from this whole situation, it’s that we all need to be resilient.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. I feel safer with no visitors coming in. I am willing to make the sacrifice of no visitors, if it means keeping us all here safe. But it still doesn’t make my broken heart feel any better. I encourage you to connect virtually with your loved ones and friends who are isolated. Spread kindness, not coronavirus.