When my stepdaughter set to work a month ago making masks for those of us in the household and her friends, the sound of her sewing machine was a constant presence in the front room from the moment she got home until she fell exhausted into bed. This went on for a week or so. Then she distributed the masks and soon set about making even more.
At first, I took the mask she made for granted. The Stay-At-Home order here in Illinois made them almost superfluous. But as pressure grew to wear masks more in public, I took to wearing her creation to the grocery store, Walgreens and Pet Supplies Plus. I figured it was my social responsibility. Not that hard to do.
I kept the mask in the car so that I would not forget during these small travels. It didn’t bother me much to have it on my face for fifteen minutes at a time.
The real deal
But today I’m staged at a premier medical facility to tend to a friend going through a crucial procedure. It is a requirement to wear a mask during the whole time you’re in the facility.
Having a mask on your face for ten or fifteen minutes in a grocery store is easy. Wearing one for eight or so hours at a time is not so easy. While the mask I own is well-made, it is not some custom deal. It has elastic that binds the ears a bit after a few hours. So I discreetly pulled off the mask to take a break while eating lunch. No harm done. No one here complained. I kept far apart from everyone and ate in peace. Then went back to wearing the mask.
I did get a sharp glance this morning when approaching the door to the hospital without my mask on yet. It was raining like crazy and I hadn’t pulled it out of my coat pocket after parking the car and running down the street. That’s when a tired-looking physician was headed out the door to get some air or wrap up his day. Who knows the work he’d just done? We can only imagine in these times.
There are likely Covid-19 patients here for sure. But there are also necessary heart surgeries going on and procedures being done to help patients back to health. That sharp glance at the door was justified. Get with the program, it said.
While sitting in the waiting area, I overheard a surgeon talking to a man about his wife’s operation this morning. The woman surgeon described the process of implanting an artificial valve or a vein stint of some kind in his wife. He listened carefully to her patient words. She was eager to let him know that things had gone well.
Her operational kindness made me think about a sign I’d seen in the lobby while entering this facility. It said something about the fact that any kind of aggressive behavior would not be tolerated.
We must suppose that happens occasionally here at the hospital or the sign would not be posted. Some people have no patience while waiting for patients. I’ve seen that firsthand, including the day that my father was having quadruple bypass surgery. While sitting in the waiting room, I witnessed the moment a surgeon came out of the operation room to tell a woman that her husband had come through bypass operation well. But there had been challenges. From the description he gave her, things were quite serious with her husband’s heart condition. The surgeon spoke softly and slowly so that she would understand the gravity of her husband’s condition. Yet her first reaction after the surgeon finished talking was indignation: “What took you so long?” she demanded.
I was sitting next to my mother at the moment, who was a naturally nervous wreck waiting for my dad to come of surgery. Watching that exchange did not help her feel any better. How was dad doing in there?
Fortunately, my father’s surgery went well. The next day while visiting my father in his hospital room during recovery, I saw the woman we’d seen the night before sitting with her husband in the same room with my father. The curtain was mostly drawn, but I overheard him ask her, “Can I have a cigarette soon?”
I thought to myself, “Seriously? The day after heart surgery all you can think about is smoking?” Then I glanced at my mother and she just shook her head.
Clearly, there are many people in this world who appreciate the work and skill of medical professionals such as that surgeon. Yet there are many who do not. Some are so self-absorbed they can only see a situation through the lens of their personal priorities and their selfish notion of what constitutes their “rights” as a patient or a caregiver.
And many of those people are distrusting or losing patience with medical professionals at the highest levels of our country. They’re turning to conspiracy theories and a wide array of alternative narratives to justify the worldview that people charged with protecting lives are somehow trying to ruin their own.
The painful gap
Perhaps this painful gap between gross indignation and gratitude is the product of a willing ignorance about what it takes to perform medicine––or science for that matter–– of any kind. Medicine is not an entirely predictable occupation in many ways. It’s admittedly an art, but dependent on science to inform the recommended treatments and actions. It is also true that because it depends on testing and evidence to arrive at those conclusions, science and medicine take time. And Americans, as a rule, hate waiting for anything.
We all know that diseases and medical conditions of many kinds can appear to go away only to come raging back later on. I’ve experienced that with several types of infections over the last eight years. One “bug” got into my left-hand middle finger from a seemingly innocent encounter with a sliver picked up while gardening. At first the oral medicine seemed to work. But then the infection flared up and the finger swelled. The doctors told me that if it “went osteo…”, meaning if it entered the bone, I’d likely lose the digit. That meant surgery followed by weeks of treatment with self-administered antibiotics. Then came many more weeks of hand therapy to reclaim relatively full use of my middle finger. And we all know how important that finger is to displaying public sentiment at times.
Cellulitis and a bad tooth
Three years later I contracted cellulitis from a cat that nipped me on the back of the hand while playing with her at home. That diagnosis led to antibiotics that wiped out my good gut bacteria and gave me a dangerous condition called c.diff in which you suffer intense gastrointestinal stress (I did) that if left untreated can actually kill you.
And finally, late last summer I had a tooth go bad from some less-than-optimal dental work performed by a mall-front practice when our insurance options were limited due to my late’s wife’s condition and a crappy plan offered by the small business where I worked. The infected tooth suddenly leaked through to my jaw and my entire face blew up with a sublingual infection. The oral surgeon sat me down in the chair and said, “If we don’t fix this you could die.”
I’m glad that happened last year. If it had happened this spring, I might indeed be dead.
So I know what it’s like to deal with infections. This Coronavirus pandemic that is causing Covid-19 illness is a serious infectious disease. It drowns the lungs and is deadly for those with pre-existing conditions.
That is why I’ve kept my mask on all day while waiting in the lounge of this amazing hospital. If I’m not the one at risk, I would never want to infect someone else. That hardly seems like it needs to be a point of pride for most of us. It’s the humane thing to do. But some people are so selfish or politically stubborn they take offense at even the smallest favors extended to the rest of humanity.
Granted, the backs of my ears may hurt a bit from wearing the mask all day. But let’s be pragmatic: no matter what you believe in these times, it’s still critical to do what you can to block the spread of Covid-19. That’s true even if you’re asymptomatic. I heard someone say that a friend in Florida was approached by a man who said hello and tried to shake their hand. When they declined, the man blurted, “Oh, you’re one of those Covid people.”
As if that were the real disease: protecting others by protecting yourself. Yet that’s what America has come to in many quarters. Such selfishness is a disease that infects the mind and quite possibly the soul as well. If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic has provided some clear delineation of how so many Americans think. And it’s nothing to be proud of.
Here in the waiting room, we’re all sitting far apart but the hospital is not crowded. In fact, many hospitals across the country are actually hurting for business during this pandemic because Shelter-in-Place orders canceled many forms of medical procedures. Even dentists aren’t able to practice because they can’t find enough PPE to cover their practices. That’s ironic in my eyes because I’ve seen firsthand what neglected dental issues can do to your health. Gum inflammation is even associated with health problems such as heart disease and other internal problems.
We live in a world twisted apart by the threat of death from a disease that afflicts relatively few but conducts itself with consistently deadly properties. And we don’t yet know whether it can ever be prevented or cured with a vaccine. So we’re living with the unknown while people are literally forced to die alone.
Taking a deep breath
Our entire economy has been sort of breathing in with anticipation that the Stay-At-Home orders might relent sooner than later. That led to a nation holding its breath for weeks on end. The start of the exhale finally began with businesses shedding millions of employees that they can no longer afford to pay. That exhale blew away the employment prospects and income for millions, and millions more are likely hanging by a thread. People are afraid. Most of us, in fact. Are afraid.
That means there is anger brewing in the hinterlands. Predictably, the aggressive behavior of armed protesters in Michigan flared up again today. This time it caused the legislature to shut down in order to protect the safety of all those involved. One of the protesters displayed a naked brunette doll hanging from a noose. It was obviously a dog-whistle threat against the female governor. Such displays signify a willing intention of violence. Militias across the nation have been complaining for decades about supposed government overreach. Now they have a keen illustration that suits their narrative, so they marched into town with guns displayed as if they were itching for a fight. They are hoping to bully the nation into opening up the economy to satisfy their personal belief that there is no real threat from the virus. To quote an old McDonald’s campaign, they want to “have it their way.”
And unfortunately, if they are successful, that may be exactly what they get. Coronavirus, their way.
We’re all hopeful that America can find a middle ground as other countries have done. But that will require a cooperative spirit and intelligent consideration. And it can’t be politically or even economically motivated, as the original denial of the threat of the disease most certainly was. Real Americans really are hurting. There are proposals on the table to send everyday people $3T in aid to help the population through what threatens to be a major Depression if not commitment is made to the nation’s citizens rather than the money sponge of corporate welfare and stock buybacks that help no one.
Freedoms and pride
The complaints of those militia types are thus misguided. For they are largely griping about being told what to do by the government. As a tradition, Americans have long taken “pride” in their freedoms. The nation is founded on an escape from tyranny under English royalty. Over the centuries it has become popular to claim that America represents freedom worldwide. But that claim is ironic when the most we seem to have gained from that freedom is a terminal brand of impatience and ignoble immaturity that manifests itself as ingratitude toward the law of the land, and the land itself. That’s not freedom. That’s victimhood and selfishness disguised as patriotism. There’s nothing to be proud of there, because it makes us weak.
Disgustingly, some of that selfish ire is even being aimed at the heroic works of medical professionals and government officials trying to work together to protect lives. But let’s be straight about our situation: Fixing this pandemic stuff isn’t easy, and it isn’t a question of counting on miracles or religious faith to set things straight. And for all we know, God thinks America has been behaving like a pack of selfish brutes and it’s time to clean house. That’s what scripture warns us about. God does not abide by the selfishness of men. Or women. Or anyone for that matter.
The love of money
But scripture says that God is particularly disgusted when the covetous love of money drives all decisions. Yet economic fear is a special type of awful emotion to most Americans, and some just can’t mask it. We are a nation quite accustomed to having most of what w want, when we want it. Everything about our culture seems to scream “Gimme gimme” from guns to fast food to contestants on reality TV competing for someone else’s goddamned attention.
So I think back to that woman in the heart operation waiting room who stood before that exhausted heart surgeon demanding to know, “What took you so long?”
Our nation may represent liberty in some fashion, but portions of the American public are cut from the most ungrateful kind of cloth. Now those people want to protest putting a little cloth across their faces, and the President claims that it might make him look ridiculous. It goes to show you that no sacrifice is too small to use as fodder for selfish pride.
And that’s not the right kind of pride.