At the start of Thanksgiving break, I left Old Campus, relieved after a long semester to finally go home and catch my breath. Meanwhile, my cousin was dialing 911 because he couldn’t catch his.
My older relatives don’t speak English, so I called the hospital and learned my cousin had been admitted into the ICU. We were all terrified, but thought that he would get better now that he was in the hospital. Besides, my cousin was in his forties with no pre-existing conditions.
Over the next few days, I called the ICU day and night to get updates. Doctors and nurses reassured me he was stable and being watched closely. In fact, his oxygen saturation had improved since his admission and he seemed to be doing better. For a while it seemed that he’d be home soon and everything would be okay.
I guess there truly exists the calm before the storm.
Thanksgiving morning, I groggily answered a call at 7 a.m. from a nurse asking if I could get his wife’s consent to insert a central venous catheter so that the ICU staff could deliver his medication effectively and draw blood quicker now that he was sedated. Sedated? Confused, I questioned further — the nurse realized we didn’t know. She apologized profusely, saying they didn’t call me to let me know because my cousin had called someone before it happened. The staff assumed it was to tell us that he had to be emergently intubated.
What a wake-up call.
I found out later that he had called his daughter, who had no idea her father was going to be intubated after hanging up. The nursing staff set up group FaceTime calls so that we could see him and over the week, we watched as COVID-19 increasingly debilitated him. More machines and more tubes appeared on our screens, but my family continued to talk to him in hopes that he could hear us rally for him through his induced coma.
A week after Thanksgiving, the doctor called an emergency meeting with my family. My cousin had multiorgan failure, oxygen saturation in the 40s, acute respiratory distress syndrome and complete damage to the lungs in his chest x-rays. Extreme interventions were already too late and too dangerous. They didn’t believe he would make it past the weekend and asked me to translate to his wife if she would consider a do-not-resuscitate order, because no CPR or AED would reverse the damage that COVID had wrecked on my cousin.
His wife needed time to think about it, but she never ended up having enough. The next couple days, we continued to FaceTime, begging him to hold on. Sunday afternoon as we were calling, the nurse walked in, said something indiscernible to the camera, and hung up.
She never FaceTimed us back.
After grieving with my family, I sat down at my desk to try to do some work, it was reading period, after all. I started to bawl. My cousin and I had spent grueling hours together to build my desk so that I could have a private workspace at home. Now, the desk stands empty. I can’t sit there without thinking of my aunt and uncle who should have never had to bury their son; my other cousin who lost his beloved twin brother; my cousin’s daughter who can’t have her father send her off when she starts college this fall; and my dear cousin, who knew he would die alone and called his daughter one last time before never waking up again.
I can’t help but spiral into the hypotheticals and what-ifs that could’ve prevented his death. What if Hillary Clinton had become president and handled the pandemic? What if the U.S. mandated face masks? What if we enforced social distancing strictly? What if we remained on lockdown longer? What if I had done remote learning at home instead and found out about my cousin feeling sick sooner, so I could’ve pushed him to get treatment earlier?
It’s too late to go back and address the what-ifs of what might have happened and where we would be instead, but we all have power now to change the course of the pandemic moving forward. The U.S. is in its third surge, and we should all know better by now. What’s killing millions of people around the world is not a hoax — it’s a real and horrifically deadly virus that has cruelly ripped away more than 1.5 million lives in isolation.
Your parties, your vacations, your unnecessary gatherings and outings — those can all wait. Anyone, anywhere and anytime, can get this disease and you never know who will join the 1.8 percent of U.S. COVID patients who have lost their lives. Believe in the ruthlessness and deadliness of this virus, and don’t let it waver for a second just because distribution of vaccines have begun. COVID-19 is not gone and this pandemic is far from over.
Wear your masks. Wash your hands. Maintain 6 feet from each other. Quarantine yourself if you’ve been exposed. Heed public health guidelines. Remind others to do the same. Prevent the stories of the families of 1.5 million people worldwide — including mine — from becoming yours.
PATRICIA XU is a junior in Ezra Stiles college. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.