Reflections on a Pandemic: Holly Eger
Over the past few weeks we reached out across our region to people from all walks of life. We asked them to share their thoughts as they navigate through the pandemic.
Here is one of the essays featured on our Reflections on a Pandemic episode of The Point.
“William James, Tennis, and My Sister-in-law’s Battle Against the Coronavirus”
William James, the great 19th-century philosopher and psychologist, wrote that the only advantage of sickness is that it provides insight into one’s soul. Back then, everyone was far too familiar with illness, death, and the practice of quarantining. Before 20th-century science and vaccines, children got sick and were gone in a matter of days. The fear of disease was so much a part of daily life that nobody, at least based on my research, ever felt immune to anything. They never got to experience the joy of, say, feeling carefree. And because they didn’t understand how germs worked yet, people took care of their family members and neighbors no matter what, unwittingly putting themselves at great risk of infection. People weren’t usually left alone and they didn’t usually die alone, as they are now during our current 21st-century pandemic.
Today we find ourselves anxiously contending with a novel Coronavirus so contagious that everyone is required to be isolated, affording us all so much time for insight into our souls that even William James would have been impressed. I think, for just about everybody by now, this pandemic has become personal. Already I’ve lost two friends, not to mention lots of sleep over my brother’s and a niece’s bouts—neither of which, thankfully, required hospitalization—and I’ve cried for countries decimated and for humanity in general. In the midst of all this horror, though, I have found some inspiration, namely from the victorious fight waged early in April by my courageous sister-in-law, a doctor in Rhode Island.
My sister-in-law, who is 57, apparently caught an especially whopping case of the virus in her clinic. After a week self-quarantining at home with her head feeling like a bowling ball and not really being able to breathe, she thought she was through with it when suddenly she relapsed—her fever spiking so high and her breath becoming so labored that her husband called 911.
The ambulance was required to bring her to a local hospital where they didn’t know she was coming, were unprepared to deal with a Covid-19 case and, impossibly, left her stranded alone in a hallway for six hours before her husband managed to get another ambulance to take her up to a Boston hospital. Even there, they kept her waiting outside in the parking lot, shoved her back in the ambulance for a while, then finally installed her in a specially converted room.
So began six feverish days in solitary confinement, battling pneumonia and an excruciating cough while also being assaulted by inhumane GI-tract indignities. As a doctor, she was fully aware that the fact she’d been admitted to the hospital meant her odds of making it out weren’t too great. Yet somehow she willed herself to endure each day and night until the next visit from her truly wonderful-sounding doctor, an immigrant from Syria. Each day he assured her she was not going to die. “You are part of our family now and we are going to get you through this,” he told her.
She said it was terrifying to be so alone on the battlefield, her only weapons Tylenol and an IV. Moments when she felt ambitious, she would stumble over to her big window to look down on the sidewalk, wanting to scream at the people to go home, get out of harm’s way. More often, her body aching and head searing, she would lie in bed and stare at the ticking wall clock, breaking down time and steeling herself to get through each minute. I think I would have lost my mind.
Only her doctor and an assigned nurse were allowed to enter her room, and only one at a time. Each three-minute check-up required such a time-consuming team effort on the part of the caregivers that she vowed, as a caregiver herself, not to ask for anything she could possibly do on her own. While she looked forward to visits from her nurses—amazing, anonymous automatons inside their PPE armor—their required lack of interaction sometimes left her feeling more isolated: they would hastily give her a tray, check her vital signs and leave. After each visit, through her half-window to the hallway, she would watch her nurse meet a second coworker who was waiting there to help peel off the gloves and gown and immediately stuff them into a biohazard box. I would have resented feeling like such a pariah.
I also would have wanted to feel special, to have the hospital workers congratulate me on surviving another night. But there were so many patients on that Covid floor, and so many didn’t survive. My noble sister-in-law, too weak to speak, wasn’t looking for any medals. She said she merely felt overwhelmed at how selfless the staff was, putting their own families in jeopardy, risking their lives to save hers.
What I wonder yet haven’t dared ask her is, weren’t you afraid you might die before anyone could get suited up in time to sit with you, to hold your hand? Weren’t you afraid you were going to die alone?
Now recovering at home, my sister-in-law recounted this tale and we wept in awe—at her courage, at the pain she’d suffered, in frustration at not being able to help her. Later, my husband, who has always admired his little sister’s grit, asked if she thought possibly, in addition to her medical training, her teenage years playing competitive tennis might have helped; if maybe tennis had taught her to believe in herself, to know she held the power to muster whatever was necessary for any fight.
He was in absolutely no way comparing her Corona experience to a tennis game and she shrugged off his suggestion, instead crediting excellent medical care, her strong immune system and luck. But what he was talking about was her other-worldly equanimity despite being all alone, her ability to approach each minute with a deep conviction that yes, this was the ultimate fight of her life and yes, she would win.
I am a terrible tennis player, but I am always looking for metaphors. Obviously, battling this novel virus is a billion times harder than any game; it truly is life and death. Yet combatting each cluster of Coronavirus moments seems to me to require the same sort of tenacity and guts it might take to win a point in some kind of nightmarish, endless tennis match in hell. My husband tells a story of once playing a tennis tournament in 110-degree heat, not sure whether it was his sneakers or the court melting, and how after his match he watched his sister, behind five games to three in her final set, somehow dig deep enough to pull out the victory.
I try to envision my sister-in-law at 14, playing singles on that sweltering court. Then, she could see and hear people cheering for her; her mother was in the stands. In the hospital, she was all alone—petrified and in agonizing pain. Tennis probably didn’t teach her stamina and determination; she was likely just born the way she is. But tennis did teach her how to stay centered and enabled her to discover early on what she was made of, and that may have come in handy as she fought for her life.
Not everyone has my sister-in-law’s combination of innate pluck, confidence and know-how, so we need to continue to band together as one community to beat this dread disease. In this day and age, at least in this blessed country, no one should have to wage such an isolated battle. No one should have to die alone. Perhaps we can spend some of this time by ourselves in quarantine pursuing less painful quests for insights into our souls, à la William James, through meditation, journaling and solitary walks. Because while self-reliance and self-knowledge are some of life’s greatest gifts, everything will be a lot better when we can face life’s adversities with our family, friends and neighbors by our side.
Holly Eger is the award-winning author of Split Rock: A Martha's Vineyard Novel.