By Melissa Dribben,
Before my husband was offered a contract for his dream job as a doctor in a big city hospital, the department chief said that first, he would have to approve me.
This was 1988. I had a master’s degree in international affairs and had been a journalist for nearly a decade. You can guess my reaction. But I agreed to meet the boss and June Cleaver my way into his retro heart.
Lately as I pass the lawn signs and billboards and banners thanking health-care workers for their heroism, I feel proud of my husband’s part in combating the pandemic. But that pride is tinged with anger. For as much as John and his co-workers deserve gratitude for their selflessness, they also deserve a lot more support.
And so do their families.
Much has been written about the toll covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has taken on people like my husband. Less obvious is the effect it has had on their families. We have always shared the grief they bring home, and sometimes the diseases.
In our family, medicine isn’t just what my husband, John, does, it’s who he is.
An infectious-disease doctor, he remembers well the early years of the AIDS epidemic when HIV was little understood and much feared. And then as now, it took the government too long to acknowledge what was happening and protect the public.
Meanwhile, my husband was intrepid.
He’d come home in tears, having lost one patient after another. He’d pull parents aside and assure them that AIDS was not God’s punishment for being gay. And he tried desperately to reason with anyone who shunned his patients. Surgeons who refused to operate. Dentists who refused to treat. Funeral directors who refused bodies.
It was hard to gauge the risk, but John was willing to take it. Like so many other spouses and siblings and children and friends of health-care workers, I supported his decision — with anxiety.
At times I wished he’d gone into horticulture instead. Like the day he came home, hugged me and said he’d nicked himself with a needle contaminated with HIV. He tried to reassure me that his exposure was minimal and probably harmless, but in those days, the idea of any exposure at all was terrifying, carrying the threat of Kaposi’s sarcoma, blindness, wasting and death.
We were lucky. He dodged that bullet.
Covid-19, though, hit home.
Last March, when his outpatient office closed, John began seeing patients virtually. He hated the setup. One of his gifts as a doctor is his keen ability to observe. He notes his patients’ gait as they enter the room. Detects hints of illness from the scent of their breath or a wound. Catches subtle variations in the sounds from their heart and lungs.
Telemedicine does not allow that. So in July, he insisted on going back to in-person care in his outpatient office and in the hospital. No one knew when vaccines would become available. He couldn’t wait any longer.
He tried to be careful. At 68 and therefore at higher risk, he let his younger partners treat coronavirus patients, while he cared for the others, understanding that some of them would be asymptomatic carriers. He Purelled and washed his hands until they were raw, wore goggles and a surgical mask.
He had to sign for every N95 mask he requested and his hospital supplied only one kind — a brand that crushed his nose and has an abrasive surface that inflamed his skin.
I tried to buy him the more comfortable, and scarce, 3M Aura N95s, but failed. Legitimate suppliers were selling directly only to health-care facilities, and with millions of counterfeits circulating, I saw no point in scoring a knockoff on eBay.
Let’s be clear. I’m not holding a pity party.
John could have double-masked. He could have asked for a larger office and put more distance between himself and his patients. I suggested these and a dozen other measures.
None, he said, were practical.
We made it to December before he started coughing.
Within a week, he had shared “the ’vid,” as our children came to call it, with our niece, our oldest daughter and our son-in-law. Next, it nailed our neighbor, who stopped over maskless to ask a favor and ended up in the hospital, gasping for air. I was the last to fall ill.
This virus is capricious, whipping through neighborhoods like a tornado, destroying swaths of homes while leaving others intact.
So it was that our grandchildren, along with our youngest daughter and her fiance, managed to stay negative (in the most positive sense).
All of us have recovered with few lingering problems. Our sense of smell has just begun a tentative return, allowing us a whiff of hope in a freshly peeled orange or slice of onion. The asthma the virus triggered in me fizzled out after a month or so. And it turned out that our neighbor ultimately benefited from covid-19 because during his hospitalization, doctors discovered he has a heart problem that is now being treated.
John feels awful about spreading this disease. He has devoted his career to helping people get and stay healthy. Painfully aware of what might have happened, he is grateful that everyone he infected is going to be okay.
I admit I was furious with him. I wish he had listened to me and either kept working from home or been more cautious.
But if he is at fault, the bulk of the blame surely belongs to the government officials, both appointed and elected, who failed to be honest about how this virus was spreading. Who failed to ramp up production and coordinate delivery of personal protective equipment. Who failed to protect every front-line hero, their families and the public from a disaster that was, if not preventable, at least less devastating.
Yet, even as the country has reached more than 540,000 deaths from the coronavirus, there is reason to be hopeful. The daily count of cases and deaths is finally, finally, beginning to diminish. The new administration is trying to catch up and repair the damage wrought by its predecessors, getting vaccines out to people quickly and confirming that, yes, masks really do make a difference.
But we are facing a shrewd and determined force of nature in this virus, which is morphing into ever more dangerous variants. I hope that the vaccines firing up the nation’s immunity will vanquish the new assaults. But after this year, I worry.
My husband sometimes jokes that given the nature of disease and politics, he will never have to worry about job security.
Me either. I still sometimes bristle at the perception of my supporting role as doctor’s wife, accessory to a medical savior. But I do take pride in having helped him do his job. For he has always used his talents for the greater good. I wish I could say the same of those who forced him to become a hero.