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The inside look at coronavirus I never wanted

By Sophie McMillian | April 3, 2020 | Community Health

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Pictured: Sophie McMillian (right) with her sister Jeannie

Three of my family members are sick with coronavirus.

They are quarantined together in their home in the United Kingdom, where local hospitals have run out of space to care for them.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing the term “new normal.” We’re figuring out a “new normal” at work and with our friends. For my family, this “new normal” means getting twice daily text updates on whether my sister will need to be put on a ventilator today.

This isn’t normal.

To continue to say that this temporary state is “normal” would be to normalize physical distance, overwhelmed healthcare systems, mass job loss, police states, collapsing economies, widening disparities, grieving families.

This temporary state we’re in is complicated at best. There are so many levels and layers of feelings. From collective grief ‑ that undercurrent that permeates every conversation outlined beautifully in this recent Harvard Business Review article – to the personal.

My sister and her family have been sick with COVID-19 for more than 20 days now. My sister is 47. She isn’t supposed to be at risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms. She’s not over 60. She’s not immunocompromised. She eats well and exercises often.

And she hasn’t been able to breathe normally for more than two weeks.

Quote reads: "Life may never go back to what it was like before, and we are all grieving that loss. Coronavirus will change us forever, like 9/11 or Charlottesville or Sandy Hook has. But I hope you'll join me in recognizing that this is not our new normal."

Every day my brother-in-law updates us on her condition. The EMS folks have told him that hospitalization is exclusively reserved for those who need to be on a ventilator because they are out of beds. So, they triage and treat at home as much as they can.

All the while, my brother-in-law, who’s 42 and very active, is also sick. He’s less severe than my sister, but we communicate only by text because talking is too difficult and aggravates his breathing. Then there’s my nephew, who’s 15 and who is supposed to be invincible. He isn’t. He’s an all-star track athlete who has been sick since March 9th and is also watching both of his parents struggle to walk to the bathroom without gasping for breath.

This disease is brutal and relentless. It’s also quite the mystery. My niece — she’s 17 and has no symptoms at all. She is quarantined with the rest of the family and has no doubt been exposed to the virus. Most likely, she’s one of those “asymptomatic ” people we hear about.

I’ve gotten a sneak-peek into COVID-19 that I never wanted. It seems we’re not ready for what could happen next. Right now, many feel that staying at home should be a last resort – and it is. But this is the only way to slow the spread of the virus.

So no, this is not my “new normal,” and I would encourage you to push back on the idea that it’s yours. This is temporary. And in my darkest moments, which I have more often than I’d like to admit, I must remember there are things I can do right now.

  • I can stay home to make sure that I don’t accidentally get someone else sick. So that I don’t get sick, and so I can take care of my mom if she gets sick. So that I can lead by example. And I can complain in a few months that we stayed at home and nothing happened… because that’s the point.
  • I can call my friends, my loved ones, my coworkers, my support system, and although we’re physically distant we can still be socially connected and there for each other.
  • I can give grace to myself and to every other person I encounter. Because this is so very hard, and I’m not going to minimize that.
  • I can donate and volunteer my time virtually. Or I can know that I don’t have the capacity to do that, and that’s OK too.
  • I can continue to be honest, to uplift other people’s lived experiences and not diminish them.

Life may never go back to what it was like before, and we are all grieving that loss. Coronavirus will likely change us forever, like 9/11 or Charlottesville or Sandy Hook has. But I hope you’ll join me in recognizing that this is not our new normal.

When we’re on the other side, we have the opportunity to take the lessons we’ve learned in the struggle to intentionally build a normal that is more equitable, kind, gracious, compassionate, understanding of individual experiences, and stronger and more socially connected than ever before.