The Nightmare Cough – by Dr. Les Kertay

coughFor the past 5 weeks, I have been living a nightmare. I’ve been about half-present at work, or maybe more precisely I’ve been mostly present about half the time. I’ve come and gone from social media because too often I am unable to tolerate the incivility and hatred that has become – against all odds – even worse during this time when we should all be pulling together.

The nightmare I’ve been living is being worried sick that the love of my life was going to die.

About 5 weeks ago, already almost 2 weeks into self-imposed social distancing, Maddie started to cough. At first, it seemed like a simple chest cold. No high fever, no loss of taste or smell, nothing that made me panic.

The cough kept getting worse.

If you know Maddie, even a little, you know that she doesn’t stop moving, doesn’t stop doing. She “does” all the time – she runs a business, writes and influences others in the name of social justice, creates art, rebuilds our home, cooks, cleans, listens to friends and family, relentlessly defends those who need defending. There is not a minute of her waking life that she isn’t doing something to make the world better for someone else.

Maddie went to bed and didn’t – couldn’t – do much of anything.*

The cough kept getting worse.

She went to the doctor. She had a fever. Up until the point where she called me from the parking lot to tell me that she had a fever and she was now in COVID protocol, waiting in isolation to see the doc, I was worried but not afraid. Something happened in me when I got that call – a terror settled in my belly and a heaviness crept into my heart, and they didn’t let up.

Her lungs sounded bad and the doctor prescribed an antibiotic, because it seemed like a pneumonia. COVID testing wasn’t available because we only had enough in the county to test people who required hospitalization. Maddie came home and went back to bed.

The cough kept getting worse.

There wasn’t really anything I could do for her. I did what I could around the house, made what I could for her when she wanted to eat, kept working as best I could because I knew how lucky I was to still have a job.

I slept like shit, when I slept. I’d wake episodically to her cough, or the rattle in her lungs. I’d wake to the sound of labored breathing, the sounds of someone who has to work to get enough air to stay alive.

By now the terror in my belly was a brick, the heaviness in my heart was a stone. Somehow, I kept going, doing what I could to seem braver than I was, trying hard to bear the terror quietly, in the dark as I lay awake, listening.

Maddie stayed in bed. The cough kept getting worse.

Day 14 passed and there had been no collapse, no sign of the dreaded cytokine storm that meant she’d have to go to the hospital. No sign of the intense immune over-reaction that meant her body was losing the battle. No sign of the sudden drowning in her own mucous. I should have been relieved when that moment came and went. I wasn’t.

Maddie stayed in bed. The cough kept getting worse.

Eventually, Maddie’s cough became productive and colored. Now it was clearly a secondary pneumonia, and the doctor prescribed a second round of antibiotics. Under any other circumstances, her doctor said, Maddie would have been sent to the hospital. Under the circumstances of this pandemic, though, that was the last place she wanted Maddie.

So Maddie stayed home and kept coughing and fighting to breathe. I kept holding my breath and worrying. My belly stopped working and my heart kept breaking. That was week 4.

Gradually Maddie seemed to get better. I still worried, but a little less each day. She moved more, determined to keep writing and doing as much as she could. She kept inspiring others. We are now at almost 6 weeks and she is almost – not quite but almost – well. Maddie will die some day, but not just now.

And here at last is the point I want you to hear most: we are the lucky ones.

Was it COVID-19? We don’t know, and we won’t for some time. Did I get infected or not? Was I an asymptomatic carrier, or perhaps were the days in which I was narcoleptically tired and a little “under the weather” the mildest form of the disease? We don’t know. We had to act as if we both had the disease and didn’t have it – quarantined as if we had it, in order to avoid infecting others, isolating and disinfecting as if we didn’t have it, for fear that it would come and knowing that on top of the pneumonia it really would have killed her.

That’s the worst thing about this pandemic: the uncertainty. There is so much we don’t know, and human beings hate uncertainty more than anything else. In times of uncertainty we will grab onto almost anything, because the truth that we just don’t know is too painful to bear.

So instead, we believe all sorts of things that make no sense.

The curve appears to have flattened because of all the social distancing and precautions. Now “only” 50,000 of our countrymen have died and we are breaking our arms patting ourselves for doing such a good job. Can you imagine any other circumstance in which we would congratulate ourselves for only losing 50,000 people, each of whom had family and friends and neighbors, to a horrible, gasping death?

We are chomping at the bit to “get back to business.” Yes, some of us because we need to get back to work for fear of being unable to feed our families. But let’s be honest, for many of us it’s simply because we’re tired of being cooped up and watching Netflix, unable to tolerate even another minute without cake from The City Café or a movie with a tub of popcorn covered in some phony radioactive butter-like substance. Or, also for entirely too many, because we want to protect our investments. Can you imagine any other circumstance in which we would risk killing “only” – and this is conservative – another 50,000 or so people to protect the incomes of corporations and their shareholders?

Some of us have convinced ourselves that being told to stay home, or wear a mask in public, or not gather in large groups on the beach, somehow violates our inalienable rights to do whatever the fuck we want. Never mind that your lives are at risk, or the lives of others, by the gods I have a right to what I want. “Sacrifice the weak” one protester’s sign read. Can you imagine any other circumstance in which anyone would think such a sign was ok, much less the sentiment behind it?

Our problem is that we did our job too well. As a result, not enough of you know someone who actually had this disease. Not enough of you – yet – watched while the woman or man of your dreams – or your mom or dad or child or neighbor – fought to breathe and stay alive. Not enough of you lived through the terror of that kind of loss.

Tragically, you may yet get your chance.

Some of you will be tempted to think that I’m exaggerating, and that I worried for no reason. That I am being alarmist. I can only tell you that if you’ve never heard the sound of someone fighting for air, you have no idea what you’re talking about. I hope fervently that you never have to listen to that rattle, that your heart never has to break, that you never have to remember a time when the cough kept getting worse. In the meantime, you might give some thought to the people who have, and yet will, before you decide to go out and congregate wherever you want, without a mask, touching whatever you want.

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One thought on “The Nightmare Cough – by Dr. Les Kertay”

  1. I am so happy that Les and his wife are mending and I thank Les for his piece. I knew Les in the 90’s and regarded him as a thoughtful and spiritual man.

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