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.