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 Mind — Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 19th continued

Notifications ping on DH’s phone. Staff are upset that technicians are using the N95 masks when they’re not in direct contact with patients. A frenzy of texting ensues. Everyone is afraid of running out of equipment. DH gets it. “They’re scared,” he says.

March 20th

I’ve made big plans to bake regularly. I make challah dough with Mouche. Last time I baked challah, I ended up with what my kids refer to fondly as a “challah brick.” We re-start the yeast mixture twice. On our third try, I peer closely at the yeast pond, searching for bubbles. “Is it shimmering?” I ask DD. “I think so,” she answers.

The dough doesn’t rise. When DH comes home, I rage about my failed challah. Exhausted, he snaps at me. “Perspective,” he says. We put the challah in a warm oven. Several hours later, it rises slightly. DH braids and bakes it. It fills the house with a sweet, soothing smell.

Mouche has branched out from his current favourite, Curious George, and is watching Super Why! Now he’s obsessed with it. When we take walks, he asks me if I can find some “super letters.”

March 21rst

Impossible to get online grocery delivery. I grocery shop for a friend who’s been quarantined with her family. She opens her window to talk to me. We exchange news. I tell her DH and I have been arguing. “It’s the same for everyone,” she says. Shouting from the sidewalk, I feel as though I’m sharing my life with the entire street.

DH has a day off. It’s cold but sunny, so we go on a three-hour hike outside Toronto. It’s much snowier here than in the city. Toward the end of the hike, we hit an icy cliff. DH and I start passing Mouche back and forth to each other as we cling to the trees for support. At one point, DH, who’s got Mouche in a football hold, starts sliding down the slope. DS starts to cry and DD squeals. DH thrusts his foot out, hitting a tree and stopping his slide. Mouche giggles the rest of the way down.

Near the bottom of the cliff, a stranger offers me his hand. I’m so terrified of slipping that I take it, only to regret it moments later, since I’ll have to wash my glove. Once we’re all safely down the cliff, DH smiles. “Now didn’t that just put COVID-19 out of your mind for a few minutes?”

At DH’s work, more discussions about masks. Many physicians believe that the N95 masks should be used only for high-risk procedures; others disagree. “What will you do if you run out of masks?” I ask him. “I won’t do the procedure,” he says. “And the patient will die.”

March 23rd

In Italy, 14 doctors have died. I ask DH: “Did they take safety measures?” “I have no idea,” he says. Not for the first time, I quiz DH on his own practices. He doesn’t want to be a hero, and he won’t work if he doesn’t feel safe. I don’t know whether I want him to be a hero or not. It doesn’t seem fair to ask health care workers to make these kinds of choices.

For the first time, someone we know  – the father-in-law of another emergency doctor – dies of COVID-19. Both his son-in-law and his daughter are physicians, so he was well-connected. He died anyway.

March 26th

Upon reading one of my husband’s charts, a colleague stumbles on what she mistakes for DH’s positive COVID-19 results. She burst into tears, then realizes that the chart isn’t my husband’s, but rather belongs to a patient who has been seen by him.

One of my colleagues at the Toronto Academy of Karate runs an online class. I decide that my injured hip has had enough rest. After dinner, I don my Gi (karate uniform). Immediately I’m bathed in what feels like an elemental joy. Run on Zoom, the class is short – only 30 minutes – but I train enthusiastically, and by the end I feel better than I have in days.

March 27

Unable to sell his wares to shuttered restaurants, a food distributor brings 200 shucked oysters to DH’s emergency room and distributes them to the entire staff. The staff struggle to find the time and the means to eat them. Prohibited from eating (and drinking) in the emergency department, they are forced to go to their small staff room, where they must practice social distancing. A food enthusiast, DH manages to go to the staff room and eat a dozen oysters – he finds them delicious.

An email is sent around to DH and his colleagues: A legal firm is offering free wills for front line health care workers. The letterhead is attached to the email. Its subject line actually reads: “Free wills for front line health care workers.” DH shows me the email and we both start laughing maniacally, for an offer that is as macabre as it is generous.