As a newspaper editor, I was reading stories in January and February about a devastating virus in China. Then it was on our shores. Then in our state. Our county. Our city. Never did I expect it to arrive at my doorstep. Or more accurately, over my telephone.
For months, my siblings and I have hunkered down, wearing our masks, social distancing and limiting our exposure to one another in order to keep each other safe. A close family even in adulthood, we usually get together every four to six weeks. This year, though, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen my siblings since March, and even that was outside, with no customary hugs hello or goodbye.
My older sister lived in a nursing home in south-central Minnesota because she suffered the grave consequences of ignoring her diabetes for too long. While circumstances distanced her from our family, her health would cross my mind as I juggled working from home and staying mentally active and healthy. She's safe, I'd think. I'd check the numbers for that county. They were OK. There were no stories about COVID-19 running rampant there.
That changed with a phone call last week. My sister had been brought to Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester. Despite dialysis three times a week, her kidneys were in bad shape, and yes, they were doing a COVID test.
The next morning, two words – she's positive – opened the door to a surreal world. Seconds later, I was absorbing statements about the coronavirus complicating her situation. Without COVID-19, her issues could have been solved; with it, her prognosis was bleak. The bleakest. Then came the punch to the gut: She would not survive. What would she wish for her care?
I stammered, "I guess she'd want no machines and just be kept pain-free." In other words, hospice care. My request – Can I come sit with her? – was gently denied. No one is allowed in, not even for hospice patients with COVID-19.
All the stories about people dying alone, families saying goodbye over the phone or with a laptop, and nurses standing in for families, holding hands and comforting the dying, rushed back.
The stories are true. Nurses who are caring for COVID-19 patients are angels and heroes. I know for certain that the nurses on Domitilla 5D are. They patiently took my phone calls, put on their PPE and held the phone to my sister's ear, and then reported to me that they believed she could hear me because her face relaxed when I was talking, that her eyes fluttered. They would answer my questions as gently as possible. "Is her heart racing? Because it sounds like she's breathing really fast." It could be racing, the nurse said, but the vitals of hospice patients are not monitored.
A few hours later, I didn't have to ask if she was having trouble breathing. The phone clearly picked up the sound. It was like this: Take a metal bucket and fill it half full of pebbles. Now shake that bucket. That's what I heard. That's what COVID-19 sounds like.
The nurse came back on the line. Through tears I choked out, "I told her that it's alright to go – that she'll see her husband, our mom and dad..." "You told her the right thing," she softly reassured me.
My final question – more of a plea, really – was how much longer can this go on? "It won't go much longer," was the answer, said so softly.
I was not surprised that my sister died four hours later. With a nurse at her side, rather than her sister, who was tucked safely and warmly in her bed less than two miles away.
The end of this virus cannot come soon enough, because my siblings and I really need to hug each other.
Randi Kallas is the Post Bulletin's Local News Editor.