Black-Belt Mind – Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

April 16th

Every aspect of DH’s work environment has changed. He and his colleagues can no longer rely on their work habits, which might kill them and their patients. Their work, on some level always about problem-solving, has become increasingly so. They spend hours discussing new issues and how to deal with them, then implement solutions during their shifts.

I wash dishes and eavesdrop on their online meetings. The meetings are always on-point, and occasionally colourful. Tonight’s discussion is about testing, and whether previously ill patients should be re-tested after recovery. Most agree that re-testing in an unnecessary waste of resources.

“What if they insist on being tested?” one doctor asks.

“Most people who’ve had the swab don’t want it again. It’s unpleasant,” DH says.

“Yeah,” I overhear a male voice saying. “I’ve had it done. It’s like performing an autopsy on your eyeball.”

April 17th

When I call her to complain that I’m not getting any work done, my New York girlfriend, also overwhelmed by childcare and work, insists that I rise at 6 a.m. to do some work. She gives me strict instructions to kick out all children by 9 p.m. the night before, so that I can get enough sleep. Like everyone else, I have trouble falling asleep at night, and then struggle to focus during the day. “If the older kids want to spend time with you,” she tells me, “they can see you between 4-9 p.m.”

The plan works, and I get a fair amount of work done before Mouche gets up. I even manage to fit some journaling and yoga. I make a promise to myself to make it a habit to rise early.

After that, I spend my day grocery-shopping (always a two-hour odyssey), dropping off groceries, and ensuring that everyone gets some fresh air. I notice that there are new signs up in the ravine behind my parents’ house. The signs urge people to “stop only briefly.” Mouche and I stop on a bridge, where I allow him to throw a single pinecone to the rushing waters below before urging him to keep moving.

My sister is in a group home, and her roommate has died. My mother reassures me that the roommate died of long-standing health complications unrelated to COVID-19. I urge my mother to ensure that no-one is moving into my sister’s group home during the pandemic and, if they do, that they are tested prior to moving in. She promises me to follow up.

The emergency departments DH works in have spearheaded a new mission. For weeks now, DH has agonized over COVID-19 running rampant through group housing, especially group homes. “We’ve let these people down,” he’s told me several times. Today, he and his colleagues visit three housing complexes – a retirement home, a group home, and a refugee centre. In a single afternoon, they test hundreds of patients.

April 18th

I’m behind on my contract deadlines, so I consider staying home and working, but my fourteen-year-old persuades me to accompany her and the rest of the family on our weekly hike. “You’ll feel better if you come, and you’ll work better,” she tells me. She’s repeating my own words back to me, and I momentarily feel as though I’m doing an adequate job at parenting.

We hike in the Durham region, which has become our new, favourite hiking grounds. The first trail doesn’t work out: the parking lot and adjoining street are both closed. Clearly, nobody wants us there. We return to a trail we walked two weeks ago. It’s less muddy today, and we know the route. Last time, we made an accidental detour through the woods; today, we manage to stick to the trail, and finish the loop in less than 2.5 hours.

On the way home, DH tells me that he is cautiously optimistic about the state of the pandemic, at least in Ontario. He’s been watching the death rate (which can’t lie), as well as the ICU admissions’ rate. Both are still rising, but more slowly than expected.

My mother, who has followed up on my sister’s group home, reassures me that there are no plan to move a new roommate into her apartment. She tells me that a supervisor has been exposed to COVID-19 and is now in isolation. We talk about whether the supervisor, who was moving between various apartments, has endangered my sister and other individuals who live in the home. “I’ve decided that there’s nothing I can do,” my mother says. “So I’m not going to worry about it.”

April 19th

Having paused karate, and without access to a gym, I’m losing my upper body musculature. I consider buying weights, but don’t know where I’ll store them, for a third of my house is still under construction. As it is, we’re constantly stumbling over boxes and toys (I haven’t had access to many of my books for a year now, a situation that is a constant source of frustration). I make a plan with DH to track down our resistance bands and learn how to use them.

I spend most of my days cooking, cleaning, and nurturing children. Whenever he’s not working a shift or attending a meeting, DH does the same. My high-powered lawyer friend puts it well: “We’ve all become our mothers.” I’m struggling to find time to write. I reflect on the fact that, during a crisis, art is one of the first kinds of work to disappear, even as we need it the most.

In the interest of continuing to support local bookstores, as well as my own reading habit and that of my children, I buy additional books from Type Bookstore. I pick up Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which I’ve been wanting for several years, and then wonder why I put off this purchase for so long. I read it voraciously after Mouche’s bedtime. I find the epic, with its tale of heroics and bloody battles, strangely comforting. Plus, Heaney brings his fine poetic sensibility to his translation:

He realized

that the demon was going to descend on the hall,

that he had plotted all day, from dawn-light

until darkness gathered again over the world

and stealthy night-shapes came stealing forth

under the cloud-murk. (v. 646-651)

April 20th

I rise early to write poetry. I meet a contract deadline and spend the rest of the day celebrating by cooking and cleaning. I clean the bathroom, which hasn’t been cleaned in a week and is starting to smell, courtesy of Mouche who was dubious aim. DH, who doesn’t have to work until 7 p.m., makes homemade yoghurt and sourdough bread.

In the afternoon, our entire family visits my mother for her birthday. We stand in her driveway and sing the monkey rendition of the Happy Birthday song, which Mouche has chosen. My mother tells us she has enjoyed her birthday lunch, including the gelato that I picked up for her a few days before.

On the way home, I call my friend to figure out our future grocery-buying tactics. She’s extremely organized and has managed to place orders for delivery several weeks in advance. But the local service is changing their rules, and she will no longer be able to buy her groceries this way. DH and I decide that we’ll continue shopping in person, despite the long lineups.

April 21st

I rise early to write and read.

Beowulf defeats the first monster, Grendel:

The monster’s whole

body was in pain, a tremendous wound

appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split

and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted

the glory of winning; Grendel was driven

under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,

to his desolate lair. (Heaney v. 814-820)

Black Belt Mind – Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

April 6th 

DH’s brother, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, sends him an email warning of a possible shortage of certain types of blades. He recommends sterilizing and re-using them. Reading this, I’m uneasy about hospitals running out of brand-new and therefore indisputably sterile equipment. I’m also reminded that hospitals produce enormous amounts of waste, and wonder whether sterilizing equipment could become a viable and more environmentally-sound future practice.

The press continues to emphasize hospitals’ lack of protective equipment. I ask DH for an update. He tells me that his workplaces have managed their supplies in such a way to prevent them from running out. They’re expecting new shipments of masks. They’re also sterilizing protective equipment for re-use. I’m relieved that DH will be equipped to deal with the coming numbers, even while being guiltily aware that others won’t be as lucky as he.

April 8th

Wake up feeling under the weather with a stomach bug. I don’t understand where it came from since I haven’t been near anyone in weeks. It’s possible that DH passed something on to me. But he feels perfectly fine. This mysterious illness worries us.

I read a piece by Sandeep Jauhar in the New York times entitled “In a Pandemic, do Doctors Still Have a Duty to Treat?”.

I consider Jauhar’s question on a daily basis. Doctors are being asked to make the near-impossible choice of practicing medicine under unsafe conditions or not practicing at all.

I’m surprised to read that doctors have been in this predicament throughout history. Jauhar writes “During the Antonine Plague of A.D. 165 to 180, none other than the venerable Galen, one of history’s most famous physicians, fled Rome. Such behavior [sic] was so common that in 1382, Venice passed a law forbidding doctors from taking flight in times of plague.”

He writes that in 1986, the American College of Physicians and the Infectious Diseases Society of America issued a joint declaration that health care workers must provide care to their patients, “even at the risk of contracting a patient’s disease.”

Jauhar concludes that although doctors have an ethical responsibility to treat their patients, that responsibility is not unconditional. Society also has a responsibility toward its doctors. Citizens have an obligation to practice social distancing, for example. They also need to provide doctors with masks.

Jauhar writes: “Social order relies on reciprocity. Imposing outsize burdens on one group without sacrifice from others is unfair. Doctors and nurses and other health care workers may be heroes in this pandemic, but we will not be martyrs.”

When I bring up Jauhar’s article to DH, he frames the issue more darkly: “What good does it do to society to have a bunch of dead doctors?”

My inbox is filled with promotions. I’ve noticed that the crisis has narrowed my material desires. I no longer want to shop for clothes, for example. Under normal circumstances, I love clothes – a preoccupation that’s a constant source of guilt. I once read a passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary where she admitted to a passion for clothes; I felt duly relieved.

Lately, my wants have been narrowed down to food, affection from my loved ones, and the written word.

April 9th

I’ve recovered from my slight illness. DD now has my stomach bug. I continue to stay away from DH, wash my hands religiously, and tell DD to do the same.

Still trying to work out how to get work done. I’ve taken on two writing and editing contracts. Under normal circumstances this development would be fantastic. But now I don’t know how I’ll manage.

Contemplate getting up at 5 a.m., along with DH. Instead I get up at 6 a.m. and do physiotherapy and yoga. I’m determined to heal my hip by the end of the pandemic, at which point I’ll be able to return to karate full-time.

I have a hard time getting to work. I haven’t been sleeping well. I wake up regularly at 3 a.m. and use that time – quite productively – to worry about a number of issues: the world, DH, my children.

After yoga, I manage to do a little work, and put Mouche in front of the television, accomplishing a little more.

April 11th

Struggling with a lack of motivation, I consider cancelling our weekly hike. Our nerves are frayed. We could use some time apart. The other day, DS swore, loudly. When I admonished him, he protested: “you swear all the time!” I had to admit that he was right – although a little exaggerated. “It’s the pandemic,” I said. I promised him I would try to do better.

Today we’re hiking in the Durham region. Although the parking lot is closed, a sign informs us that the trail is open. I’m relieved: I’d been afraid of having to make the potentially unethical decision – not to mention an unlawful one – to hike on a closed trail.

The air is cold – we’ve taken our winter coats back out of storage – but it’s sunny. The trail is windy and hilly. Mouche asks me why it’s harder to go up than down, so I give him a lesson in the law of gravity. He flies down each hill, yelling, full of joy.

On our way home we listen to the All Songs Considered podcast’s episode on John Prine, who died this week of COVID-19. Angel From Montgomery is one of my favourite songs of all time. Grateful for the beauty of Prine’s melodies and the genius of his storytelling, I cry through most of the episode.

We return home, refreshed. The kids pick up their screens. We persuade Mouche to watch Curious George. DH and I resume our weekly habit of re-watching Battlestar Galactica, a show we consumed as graduate students years ago, before we had children.

Black Belt Mind — Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

April 3rd

I leave Mouche at home with DD so that I can shop for groceries. Her Friday classes are mostly asynchronous, so she can help me with Mouche. DH doesn’t want our kids (particularly Mouche, who compulsively picks up every item across his path) to go into stores, and we’ve been taking turns shopping. Online shopping is impossible as all the slots appear to be chronically full.

I’m shopping for my parents, my aunt, and my family. For the first time in 3 weeks, each of us is inordinately fussy about getting exactly what we want. As the pandemic worsens, we cling to small comforts such as our favourite deodorant or, in my case, a treasured vegan chocolate treat. I don my mask, which has been sitting and off gassing for a few days, ever since my last expedition. Experiencing a low hum of anxiety, I make stops at three different stores. I manage to buy everyone what they want, including sugar-free organic cranberries for a relative. My favourite chocolate treat, however, is sold out.

I pick up Mouche and we make the drive to deliver groceries. My mom suggests that together we walk into a ravine by her house, while staying far apart. Mouche scoots, I jog beside him, and my mom power walks several metres behind us. Once, Mouche gets too close to her and I ask him to step away.

We head for a field we’ve visited twice in the last week. We’ve never seen more than a handful of people here. Today it’s deserted.

“You’re not allowed to go there,” my mom says.

“Really? There’s no one here.”

I venture into the field, Mouche behind me. Near a picnic bench is a Parks Canada COVID-19 sign, warning us that all playgrounds, etc., have been closed due to COVID-19. The signs are so common that Mouche has taken to pointing them out whenever he sees them; he can now read the word “coronavirus.” Recently, when I tried to tell him about the “big germ”, he corrected me in an indignant tone: “it’s not the big germ, it’s the coronavirus!”

I don’t know what to do. I can’t imagine how being in an empty field could possibly constitute breaking the social isolation rule. I feel as though I’m constantly weighing common sense against rapidly-changing regulations.

I turn to Mouche. “Should we go throw sticks in the river and watch them float?”

He puts down his scooter. “Let’s play soccer!”

“I’m worried that the police are going to get mad at us for playing soccer,” I tell him.

He picks up his scooter again. “Let’s go throw sticks in the river.”

On our way home, we drop off groceries for my aunt, who uses a walker because of a recent hip replacement. I debate carrying her groceries up to her apartment, but I know I shouldn’t risk being in an elevator, especially with Mouche (who can’t resist touching elevator buttons), if I can help it. I also don’t want to run the risk of contaminating her. My aunt makes the trek downstairs, and I leave a bag for her on a bench outside her building. As Mouche and I pull away, I watch as she slowly picks up the bag and places it in her walker’s basket.

DH comes home early. The E.R. has been quiet, save for a handful of COVID-19 patients. Traffic is sparse: DH tells me he hasn’t seen an accident victim in weeks, a situation unheard of before the pandemic. Others are avoiding the E.R. as much as possible, choosing to consult their doctors by telephone or online communications.

When I tell him about my failure to find my chocolate baked good, my indefatigable DH goes online and orders a package of 6, directly from the manufacturer.

April 4th

We take our weekly hike outside the city. During a three-hour hike, we see a total of five people. The paths are more than wide enough to accommodate all of us and we slide by each other at a safe distance.

Mouche yells for the first 40 minutes of the hike. DH tries to show him how to count the rings on a felled tree trunk; Mouche slips and scratches his knee. It takes fifteen minutes to console him.

“Let’s go home,” says DH.

There’s a chorus of agreement from the kids.

“I wanna go home,” Mouche says, through tears.

“What the heck would we do at home?” I ask.

Eventually, DD takes Mouche’s hand and calms him down by telling him stories. We walk under a densely-woven canopy and filtered light, our boots making sucking sounds as we pull up the mud. Birds call out among the trees.

I’m starting to read reports, mostly from NYC, that health officials are recommending that no-one leave the cities, for fear of spreading the virus to rural communities. I begin to worry that we shouldn’t be hiking. But we’re not stopping anywhere along the way, and we rarely encounter people during our hikes.

Later I read that York region, north of Toronto, has closed their hiking trails. I’m furious – I don’t see the sense in closing largely deserted trails. I fear that our public spaces will diminish further, our freedoms increasingly curtailed.

An E.R. doctor friend posts on FB that the shipment of masks they were expecting at his hospital will not be delivered after all. For the hundredth time, I ask DH if he and his colleagues have sufficient masks. “That’s all everyone is talking about,” he says.

April 5th

Today DH planned on taking the kids for a bike ride. Normally we keep our bikes locked up on our porch, and we had assumed that they were all accounted for. But when we went to get our middle son’s bike, we couldn’t find it. With our house under construction, many of our possessions have been scattered about, in various locations. After spending an hour searching, including calling relatives to see if we had stashed the bike with them, we were forced to conclude that it had been stolen.

We discuss buying a new bike, contemplate our diminishing funds. Since the pandemic (DH gets paid mostly on a fee-for-service model, and people have stopped visiting emergency rooms) DH’s salary has dropped, even as he works under worsening conditions. We put off buying a bike. Demoralized, DH takes the boys for a drive and a scoot so I can write.

Black Belt Mind – Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 27th

I grocery shop for a friend in quarantine and for my parents, whom I’ve ordered not to go into stores. DH insists I wear a mask, instructing me patiently on how to use it. Because I’m not performing high-risk medical procedures, I can re-wear the mask several times, as long as I take precautions. “I feel ridiculous,” I tell him.

“Get over it,” he says.

I stand in line at our local grocery store, careful to keep my distance from other shoppers, resentful when a man behind me stands too close for my taste. For the first time, I experience anxiety. I call my friend in NYC, and she reassures me. “You got through SARS,” she says. “You can get through this.”

But SARS was another world. DH was quarantined then, after having been exposed to a sick patient. We didn’t take the situation seriously. We were living together, but he didn’t always wear his mask – we may have stopped kissing for a few days. Once, I used his quarantine as an excuse to return a videotape (!) late. I don’t even remember which movie we watched. Now, we have kids, we have aging parents whom we want to protect.

After a long wait, I enter the store. My heart beats rapidly the entire time I shop. The expedition takes me twice as long as usual because I’m shopping for three families. It’s also not my usual grocery store – I’ve chosen it because of its strict hygiene policy and effective crowd control – and I waste a lot of time locating groceries at opposite ends of the store. Then, joy at finding a coveted item: disinfecting wipes!

DH begins a daily routine of working with colleagues at three hospitals crafting policy around safely treating COVID-19 patients. He reads widely, attends simulations, leads SIMS for nurses and respiratory therapists. Negative pressure rooms (hospital air comes in, contaminated air goes out through ceiling vents), usually used for patients who have respiratory illnesses are being used for COVID-19 patients. Staff entrances and exits are choreographed carefully to prevent contaminated air from escaping through the front door. If they need equipment, they have to plan ahead. Each person is assigned equipment they will bring into the room, usually at the same time as patients are brought in. Properly using protective gear properly is equally complicated: staff need to know when and how to use it, how to safely remove and dispose of it. (DH hasn’t brought his scrubs home in weeks, instead throwing them into the department’s laundry bin.) Getting dressed for DH’s job now needs to be systematic and meticulous. In this new world, the price for sloppiness is high.

March 28th

As per our new family rule, we leave on our weekly hiking expedition. It’s raining, which is perfect because the trail is deserted. We only meet one other family. Like us, they’re fully equipped, with full rain gear, including rain pants. Not for the first time, I feel that our family habits (crafting, cooking, hiking) are highly adaptable to our new situation.

In the mild spring air, we walk through mud. Rain drips from maples and pines. A wild turkey bursts through the bushes a few feet in front of us. The kids gesture excitedly. We return to the city refreshed, ready for another period of isolation.

In the late afternoon, DH takes Mouche to an empty parking lot, where for the first time he rides a pedal bike. DH sends me a video. From then on, we go on twice daily practice runs, during which Mouche perfects his balance. Until one day, the parking lot is closed, sealed off like many of the open spaces in Toronto. I will always associate his first bike rides with the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 28th continued

We’ve started family conversations about supporting local businesses. The kids want to support our local pizzeria, Napoli Centrale, so we vow to buy pizza from them on a weekly basis. We also want to support small independent bookstores, some of which have moved to a delivery and/or curb side pickup model. I’m going to plug them here – after all, they’ve done a superb job of adapting to their new reality:

Blue Heron Books

Book City

Type Books

Queen Books

My collection of short stories, This One Because of the Dead, can be purchased for delivery from any of the above bookstores.

March 29th

More rain, this time thunder showers, so impossible to go out. DH takes Mouche for a couple of hours so I can work on my novel. DH does the morning craft with him and sends me a photo of the two of them, which I, the consummate procrastinator, see when I sneak a look at my email.

A local library has a 3-D printer, and DH begins discussions with the CEO about the possibility of printing protective masks. The CEO is willing, but the logistics are daunting. Because the government has ordered the library’s closure, there’s some question as to whether staff will be allowed back into the library to use the printers. In addition, only a few people have keys. DH asks him to try out three prototypes – even if he succeeds in printing one, the CEO isn’t sure how to distribute them. He suggests leaving the finished product in the entryway of the library for doctors to pick up.

March 30th

DH leaves to attend a SIM at another hospital.

My middle son’s school has set up a limited online school for its incoming kindergarten students, and Mouche has an online class! I’m amazed and grateful to the school for setting it up – both my older kids are in school, providing them with much-needed structure. Despite our numerous technical difficulties, we catch most of the lesson. Mouche enthusiastically puts his hand up several times, even when he doesn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question.

At midday, I put Mouche in front of a show so that I can attend a virtual meeting for a potential work opportunity. My laptop’s video camera doesn’t work, and I wrestle with it for half an hour before giving up and getting onto DH’s device. While I get to know a potential employer, Mouche peers over my shoulder, grinning into the camera.

DH returns for lunch and a midday walk with us. He also bakes bread, timing his walk between baking steps. In the afternoon, he goes back to work at the hospital. I need to run an urgent errand, so I leave DD with a recipe for waffles (comfort food). When I return she’s made the batter: she’s even tracked down the oversized package of baking soda, the only one I could find on my epic grocery run. She makes all the waffles – they’re delicious.

I don’t write a word – by the time evening arrives I just want to lie down. I call my best friend in NYC. A field hospital has opened in Central Park, and the reserves have arrived. “New York is a ghost town,” she says.

March 31st

DH leaves at 5:30 a.m., long before we’re awake.

Due to a planned power outage in our house, we have to move out for the day. We’ve rented an apartment so the kids will have somewhere to do their online schooling – besides, with museums and libraries closed, we have nowhere else to go.

The Hydro worker arrives forty minutes before schedule. I open the door in my housecoat. When he asks if he can turn off the power early (he has another planned disconnection and wants to get ours done quickly), I look at him as if he’s out of his mind. “I have 3 kids to get out of the house,” I tell him. “And I’m on my own.”

“Never mind,” he says.

As we leave the house, I notice that someone has dumped a bag of garbage in front of our house. The animals have torn into it, and McDonalds’ paper bags and cannabis containers are strewn in front of our house. I march the kids to our rental space, leave Mouche watching Super Why on my laptop, and return to our house. Furious and gloveless (our local hardware store is closed), I spend a half-an-hour cleaning up the mess and despairing over human nature.

Human nature is salvaged later that morning, when my friend calls to tell me she’s placed an order with a gourmet grocery store, and that my groceries will be delivered Friday. Touched by her kindness, and relieved that I won’t have to make another trip to the grocery store – at least not for the next week or two – I thank her over and over.

In the evening I read aloud to my middle son. We’re reading the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin chronicles. Not for the first time, I’m struck by how even-keeled the Austin parents are (they are fictional, after all) and feel flawed in comparison.

April 1st

For the first time since the crisis began, I watch a news story. In a Madrid hospital, there are no beds, and patients lie head-to-toe on hallway floors. Health workers are clad in protective gear they have made themselves out of garbage bags. Most of them fall ill; many die. I find myself wishing I hadn’t watched.

Black Belt of the Mind — Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

Will post more later today. To give you an idea of what I’ve been up to, here’s a sign that I created to hang outside my house:

TO THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN DUMPING GARBAGE IN FRONT OF OUR HOUSE AND IN OUR BIN: An emergency doctor lives here. When you dump garbage here, and the animals make a mess of it, we spend our time cleaning it up. For your sake and that of your relatives and friends who may end up in the hospital, please refrain from dumping and allow us to do our real work! Thank you.

I suppose I should have added “an author and mother of three lives here, and she’s currently holding down the fort….!” Perhaps on the next sign.