Getting to work after 2020
“Heed my words,” said my housemate, ominously, “watch your cars.”
Neither of my two housemates nor I have been driving much. We live in a typical, wooded suburb in North Carolina where the houses seem to have snuck in quietly among the native trees. Critters walk around the yards, all day and all night, housecats being the least comfortable among larger, wilder beasts. Our cars, parked outside on a gravel path, idle as we live our work and social lives at home.
I got in my car one morning to go to clinic, pressed the ignition button, and was greeted by a cacophony of alert beeps and flashing dashboard signals. The screen read “hybrid system malfunction.” Still driving like a normal automatic car, however, I focused on making it to work on time and figured I could address the hybrid system later with the dealer.
Fate humbled me by sending a surgical emergency into the hospital, requiring me to hurriedly drive from clinic to the main hospital campus. My car shook violently as I accelerated. I eventually made it to the operating room, made it home, and had my car towed. Two wires were chewed through. “Soy insulation,” they said. Engine wiring is commonly made with soy, which can be a treat for local rodents. They had already nearly totaled my housemate’s car, and one of my colleagues told me rats had done the same to her car in Virginia. Who knew.
In 2019, rats eating my car, getting the car towed and the cost of repair services would have been upsetting. Having survived 2020 and made it to 2021, I am grateful.
I remember sitting in my pajamas, reading the news on my laptop in my boyfriend’s apartment. It was early March of 2020, and the novel COVID19 virus had reached the New York metropolitan area. We all knew it was just a matter of time before the virus spread through the subway system. The next day, I learned of the first case in Brooklyn.
One week later, cases flooded our emergency department.
Three weeks later, our ICU was full. Our residency program went on a skeletal staffing schedule. All vacations were cancelled, we committed only to essential services, and nights/weekends became regular shifts. We didn’t have PPE. Our staff became sick. Our interns, who had only dreamed of catching babies, coded patients on the medical floors. The morgue was stacked to capacity with bodies, so insulated tents were built outside of the hospitals. The ICU extended into the post-op recovery units, then into the operating rooms themselves. Not enough ventilators. It’s all we knew to use at the time.
We, along with folks in New Orleans, were well aware that our cities were hit the hardest, the fastest, and the earliest. I remember a resident physician in the emergency room telling me she learned how to create a positive-pressure ventilating system using tubing and disposable water bottles. It was a war zone. Instead of knowing what to do, we watched people die. The guilt and helplessness of not knowing how to treat a disease that so rapidly, painfully and ubiquitously took people’s lives is a trauma with which many of us will continue to live.
And yet our suffering was only relative. Our friends lost their jobs, our family members died. We came home to pots and pans banging, people cheering and honking for health care workers, but we didn’t feel like heroes. We watched as our society became more isolated, more desperate, more radicalized. Meanwhile the virus raged forward.
I was vaccinated two weeks ago, where I currently work in North Carolina. Sitting in the chair and rolling up my sleeve, I held my breath. I didn’t intend to stop breathing, but my thoughts suspended memories of New York, of the ICU, the codes, the bodies, and I felt during this moment, about to receive a vaccine, that I may have been dreaming. I was afraid to breathe the historic moment out of existence. I didn’t even feel the injection. A band-aid, a blood pressure check, and a badge later, I was out the door. I continued thinking about Brooklyn for the first time in months. I thought of all the people who would have been and yet were not saved by this vaccine. I thought of all those who got a chest cold, or pneumonia, at the wrong time during the wrong year. All the people who died alone.
I checked Instagram, figuring most of my peers from residency had also received the vaccine by then. There they were, sleeves rolled up, beaming smiles on their faces. One showed two enamel pins on her lanyard: one pin reading “Together,” which we sold to raise money for PPE, and the neighboring pin indicating her receipt of the vaccine. “What a long way we’ve come,” she said. I sat in my car and cried.
Having survived 2020 and made it to 2021, I am grateful. I am alive.
The rats can have my f*ing car.