You can read all the newspaper stories with lists of vaccination and testing sites, and death counts, and you can watch the incessant pokes-in-the-arm on the 6 o’clock news, but you can’t really understand COVID-19 until you’ve sat at the bedside of a good friend in the intensive care unit of a hospital and watched a machine pump oxygen in and out of his lungs, while you survey the countless electronic devices attached to tubes and wires treating him and monitoring the treatment that’s keeping him alive, and hopefully boosting him toward better days ahead.
I did that Sunday, at the request of my friend Larry’s wife, to experience what she’s been through for nearly two weeks now as her husband lay motionless except for the faint heaving of his chest as the ventilator breathed for him. I sat there, at the foot of his bed, praying for the machines to all do their jobs, and for wisdom for the doctors and nurses in charge of them, that they would bring him through this terrible time to a glorious spring day when we would once more launch our canoes from the bank of the Little Missouri River, for the 40th time or so, leaving cares and nightmarish memories behind as we paddled around the river’s bends, seeking our favorite campsite just past Lucy’s Diamond Mine.
If you have a friend or family member deep in the throes of COVID, you know what I am talking about. And I bet you, too, are experiencing the anger I feel at those of our leaders who many months ago, and still today, could have found the courage to say to the naysayers, “No, you are wrong, science is right, and these are the steps, however unpleasant they may be, that we are going to take, to put an end to this horrible epidemic. Your ‘personal freedoms’ are not being taken away if I require you to wear a mask and get a vaccination to try to stop the spread of this awful disease. You are showing that you care about the health and safety of your friends, your neighbors, and all the fellow North Dakotans you don’t know, and likely will never know, but who will go on to live long and prosperous lives because we did what was right.”
Never in my wildest imagination did I think that as I neared the end of my years on this planet, I would experience anything like this pandemic we are going through, and this lack of leadership that could bring us out of it. None of us did. These things aren’t supposed to happen in this high-tech world we live in today. “If we can put a man on the moon …” we used to say 40 years ago, “we do anything, solve any problem …”
But if this disease can take my friend, Larry, one of the strongest men I know, and put him unconscious for weeks in a hospital bed, then I fear for the rest of us. As I sat beside him Sunday and looked at that muscled body, that strong, jutting jaw, that full head of 70-year-old hair with only the slightest hint of grey, I remembered the day 10 years ago or so when I finally dragged myself to the YMCA to start a long-overdue exercise program and met Larry, who was there every day without fail, in the hallway, and he looked at my sloppy, out-of-shape body and said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Hey, what are you doing here? Did you get off the bus at the wrong stop?” Then he said he was really glad to see me there.
Today, nearly two years into this long nightmare, another five or 10 of my fellow North Dakotans will die too soon, as a virus ravages their lungs after the doctors say it’s time to remove the ventilator, there’s no hope that he or she will ever breathe on their own again.
Today, when I go to the grocery store, I know there will be 50 people in there without masks, enjoying their “personal freedom,” and I can pretty much guarantee that at least one of those Bismarck residents, perhaps someone who lives just down the street, will experience the unnecessary illness, and possible death, of a friend, a family member, or even themselves, from COVID. Because when our leaders in Washington said, “Here are some things we “must” do to stop this disease,” our leaders in North Dakota filed lawsuits on behalf of their “personal freedoms.”
I am sad. And angry.
I want to add a short update on this before you leave it. I tried not to make this too personal out of respect for my friend Larry’s privacy. But I think it important to point out that Larry contracted COVID in spite of the fact that he has had all three of his vaccination shots. Larry underwent a kidney transplant this year and so his immune system is badly compromised. So even the vaccinations didn’t protect him. Dang. Getting old is hard.