BY REBECCA LEVISON
I am a public schoolteacher, not a doctor, but now I am making life-altering medical decisions to care for my 77-year-old mother in the epicenter of a pandemic.
In many ways, we are all on our own with this disease, and I felt compelled to write my story in hopes that I can help someone going through this, the same way listening to a podcast of a wife attending to her husband with COVID-19 helped me.
On March 18, my mom called to tell me she had a cough and wanted to make a little something to nip. So my wife and I walked her through creating a hot toddy: lemon juice, honey and whiskey with some hot water. She told me she had a fever by March 20 and things proceeded to get worse.
At first, she said it was just the flu, playing down her temperature, body aches and chills. By the 22nd, she had no energy and could barely get herself to the bathroom. I offered to stay on the phone while she made herself some oatmeal or a piece of toast, which gave her some semblance of safety. She complained of a dry mouth and severe dizziness.
On the 24th, her fever shot up to 102, so I booked a red-eye from Portland, Ore., to Newark, N.J. The Portland airport was a ghost town and 14 people flew across the country overnight.
When I arrived, I couldn't believe my eyes. My meticulous mother's apartment was an archaeological dig from our conversations and supportive FaceTime trips to the kitchen. On the counter was a dried-out lemon and an open jar of honey. Half-eaten oatmeal and bowls of yogurt were left lying on edges of countertops nearest to her bedroom because she couldn't make the final 3 feet to the sink.
I took a shower and put all my belongings into the washing machine. First goal was to increase her hydration. Pedialyte, electrolytes, water, tea. She felt nauseated drinking but complied at my frequent and consistent requests. "Take a sip. Have a sip. Try and sip."
Temperature checks every hour revealed that her low-grade fever decreased as she got more fluids. Fruit and veggies helped as well, along with chicken soup. The next day, she was thrilled that I had come all that way to help out. Her spirits were up so she ate and drank everything I put in front of her. Omelets and toast, yogurt and fruit, mashed potatoes and meatloaf. She ate it all. Yet she was still lethargic.
While everyone is self-isolating, watching Netflix, baking bread, meeting on Zoom and complaining of boredom, I am taking her temperature every hour, washing my hands, sanitizing every glass, plate, tray, utensil, door knob, remote, cellphone, faucet, toilet handle, soap dispenser, microwave buttons, fridge door handle, stove knob, water dispenser, toaster oven, everything. There's no boredom here. No Tiger King or CNN, just cleaning and monitoring.
And the dinging of the phone. Isolation and boredom bring endless texts. While everyone means well, some are more demanding than others. Most are soft inquiries of "How is your mother doing? How are you?" and some are simply well-wishers "thinking of you both." Some are downright adamant. Ding. "Why haven't you responded?" Ding. "Your mother stopped texting me today, what happened?" Ding. "Take her to a hospital." Ding. "Have you called the doctor?" Ding. "Does she have a cough? Does she have a fever? Is she short of breath?" And the most common… Ding. Ding. Ding. "Has she been tested?"
No. She can barely make it to the bathroom, so no, she hasn't been tested. She can't stop coughing. She hasn't been tested. She's slurring her words. She hasn't been tested. Her doctor on FaceTime gave her more antibiotics and said we should stay home. So, no, she hasn't been tested, because you have to be hospitalized to get a COVID-19 test. Thanks for the advice.
During the FaceTime doctor appointment, I asked if she could get a prescription for oxygen, or a CPAP machine. I just knew she needed it. The answer was no, because in order to get oxygen we needed to measure what I later learned was called oxygen saturation level. Or how much oxygen was in her blood. My mother had ordered an oximeter on Amazon and told the doctor it was coming the following week.
One of the most demanding texters is a longtime friend who lives across the country. Luckily, she funneled her anxiety into calling 17 pharmacies in my area and found one that still had oximeters in stock. I rushed out to buy it, and when we measured my mother's levels, they were dangerously low. It was enough to compel the weekend crew at the doctor's office to order an in-home oxygen concentrator that was delivered in four hours. Now, we're getting somewhere, I thought.
The oxygen machine arrived, and the delivery man showed me how to use it. I spent some time on YouTube to learn about the machine and anything I should be aware of, of which I learned that I should be careful not to give her too much oxygen. The biggest warning was to follow the doctor's prescription very carefully. One problem: I never got a prescription. Was I supposed to give her 2 liters or 4 liters? What was her oxygen saturation level supposed to be at? Ninety or 95? As a healthy person, my oxygen saturation level was 99, hers was 82 to start with. I cranked it up to 4 liters and kept her around 96 percent.
She woke up the next morning feeling more alert. And then the machine broke.
I knew it stopped working because of the ear-piercing beep that would not turn off until I shut off the machine. Luckily, when they dropped off the machine, it came with a backup green oxygen tank, the kind that was always in the back of my chemistry class in high school. I figured out how to get that going, and then I called to get a replacement. Now I was checking my mother's temperature and her oxygen levels every hour.
That's when the fever spiked again. Ninety-nine-point-five, 99.8, 100.2, 100.5. Just when we got the oxygen under control, her temperature started to rise. Then the oximeter began malfunctioning. It needed new batteries, which I had to go out and get. While she was on the backup oxygen and had a fever, I ran out to get new batteries and buy a backup oximeter. I hated going to the store again and risk exposure. The streets looked desolate except for a few delivery people on bicycles with packages of groceries and takeout food.
The new oxygen machine arrived a few hours later, just as the backup tank began to run out. I gave her more Tylenol and her fever began to subside. Then she threw up. I had a call into the doctor's office and was waiting to hear back.
We hatched a plan. If her fever went up to 102, we would go to the hospital. If her saturation levels dropped below 90 with the oxygen, we would go to the hospital. If the doctor said we should go to the hospital, we would go.
The on-call doctor finally rang back and said he didn't know my mom's case well enough to recommend going to the hospital but could help me with the oxygen levels. And the news every night warned of overcrowded ERs, hospital beds set up in convention centers and under tents in parks. Meanwhile, my mother's coughing and slurring and stamina were getting worse.
The next morning was a weekday and her regular doctor, who had been prescribing the antibiotics and cough medicine, would be in. We talked and decided that she should actually go to the hospital.
She was scared. Frightened of being intubated. Frightened of being left in a hallway somewhere. Scared because her daughter couldn't come with her and she would know no one. But we got all her medicine packed and decided she was too weak for me to drive her and called an ambulance.
All my interactions with health care professionals have been kind, caring, loving and helpful. These two volunteer EMTs were not. As my mother was crumpled in a wheelchair, coughing through her mask, the ambulance driver began to yell at us. "I don't know why you are going to the hospital. They're just going to send you right back where you came from in six hours! There are no beds! We've had seven of these today!"
I replied, "Her doctor thought it would be best for her to go to the hospital and possibly get some medicine."
"There are no medicines! There's no cure! They're just going to send you right back here. I hate to be the bad guy, but that's exactly what's going to happen!"
My mom begged through her mask, "Please, maybe I could get a test."
"There are no tests! They're running out of tests!"
They lifted her into the ambulance and drove away.
My mother is now in the hospital and tested positive for COVID-19. It has infiltrated her lungs. She is on oxygen and the experimental anti-malarial drugs. She is not out of the woods as a lifetime asthmatic. She is still in danger and fighting for her life.
Now I just wait. I wait for my mom to text in the morning, so I know she's made it through another night. I wait for the medical liaison to call me with an update because no visitors are allowed in the hospital. And I wait to see if I develop any symptoms. I take my temperature three times a day because I know I am most likely infected. A vector. I isolate and wait.
Rebecca Levison, 49, teaches English as a second language at Portland Public Schools. She's in the doctoral program at the University of Portland and previously served as president of the Portland Association of Teachers. She lives in Northeast Portland with her wife and 1-year-old dog, JoJo.