My infant daughter laid on my chest, wires jutting out from and across her tiny body. We were sitting on something more like a gurney than a bed, in an emergency room, where her skin shone with a blue-grayish hue. She had snot dripping from her nose, tears filling her swollen eyes — they were red, hollow. Her eyes were empty and pleading simultaneously, somehow. She was stable now, I kept reminding myself, trying to suppress the trauma of being a mother who had already lost a child once. She was stable, and she was going to stay with me now. If I said it enough, I’d have to believe it, wouldn’t I? Her eyes were able to focus on mine, her little hands able to weakly clutch onto my finger. She would stay with me.
I don’t remember exactly what the doctor said when she pulled back the curtain and put her hand upon my shoulder. I remembered that move – the universal signal for “I’m about to tell you something that’s going to burn your world to the ground” – from a few years before when I learned that my child would not be coming home with me alive. She said something about diabetes and a diabetic coma and blood sugars and Nick Jonas. That is what they give you, when they think your child is diabetic: Nick Jonas, and look how successful and handsome he is. I remember spiraling. I remember crying, screaming, trying to make sense of the statistics about chances my daughter would have at normalcy, at reaching adulthood unscathed.
What I got was more reassurance about Nick Jonas peppered in between the scary bits. Just look at him! Look at Nick Jonas!
My daughter wound up not being diabetic, as initial testing led the emergency department to believe. (Though, at age five, she does have a stunning love for The Jonas Brothers, ironically.) The comatose state we found her in, the way her blood sugars skyrocketed and then plummeted, her tiny organs struggling to regulate themselves – it was the flu. Her influenza test would show positive later that day. Over the next week, we’d consult with a cardiologist, endocrinologist, neurologist and genetic counselor from her hospital bed. Over the span of that week, we would go from the emergency room to the PICU, where an off-duty nurse friend of mine graciously sat with me by my daughter’s crib until the wee hours of the morning that first night so I wouldn’t be alone. I could not shake seeing my daughter as she was when we rushed her to the hospital, when she was unresponsive when I went to wake her. After the PICU, we moved onto the pediatric floor and, eventually, to home, where we’d spend six months testing sugars around the clock and doing follow-up testing with the endocrinologist weekly until we were cleared. The lingering impacts of influenza on my daughter’s tiny body had finally dissipated, but not without robbing her of months of normalcy.
This wasn’t the end of the flu’s reign of terror, though. It would swoop back in and take my daughter down again two years later, this time impacting her ability to walk. I can still see her, in her princess pajamas, emerging from her bedroom with legs folding like a pretzel underneath her in the hallway. She was calm as she let us know her legs weren’t working – and I, not so calm, spent another week in the hospital as doctors tried to flush life back into the body of the most spirited, strong-willed child I’ve ever met in my life.
From the start of this pandemic, I’ve gritted my teeth and bit my tongue until it bled with frustration each time someone compared Covid-19 to the flu in an attempt to trivialize it. I’ve listened with anger as parents seemingly bragged about never vaccinating their children against influenza, spewing more disinformation (like the flu shot giving them the flu the one time they got it) and in turn being part of the problem. For whatever reason, my daughter is susceptible to the worst the flu has to offer. Forgive me for not being numb to statistics about “pediatric flu deaths” and instead worrying one day, it’ll be her – a number, a statistic. A giant, gaping wound in a world that is nothing without her light.
Every one of those numbers was a life that bold and bright. A child with dreams and wishes and wants.
My family never misses a flu vaccine – we never have, and we never will. We all do our part to keep ourselves healthy because the flu, like Covid, is not “just a cold.” It’s a brutal monster, a viral beast capable of so much devastation and suffering. By each of us getting the flu vaccine annually, we also work to protect my daughter, like builders of a fortress around her, to ensure she has the best odds possible for protection from the flu. We don’t know why it takes her down so hard, but it seems irrelevant when there’s something we can do to keep her healthy. I would hope that, in an ideal world, everyone else would also ensure they never skip a flu vaccine for themselves or their children so that we are all protected, so that this fortress becomes truly impermeable and goes on to protect all of our children. The power of a community that cares about one another – what a beautiful thing!
But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught me, it’s that people don’t care about protecting one another. Not even a little bit. Humanity is very much hellbent on every man for himself. Screw the stragglers who fade from a beautiful beam of life into a mere statistic, a memoriam post on Facebook too quickly buried under junk science and Elderberry syrup sales and conservative blabber about God-given immune systems.
Two days ago, my state of Florida hit an all-time pandemic high of over 21,000 daily Covid cases. We also broke a record (that we also previously held – so much winning in the sunshine state) for hospitalizations. A local South Florida pediatrics practice, Palm Beach Pediatrics, issued a desperate plea on their Facebook page for those eligible to receive the vaccine to do so as they reported a 27% positivity rate among their patients.
As a state, we are also currently leading the nation in pediatric hospitalizations. South Florida children’s hospitals, like Joe DiMaggio in Miami-Dade, are reporting children on ventilators with a casualness that rips through my body like lightning whenever I see it reported.
Our local school board, Broward County Public Schools (the sixth largest in the country), issued a mandatory mask mandate that our homicidal dumpster fire of a Governor swiftly overturned with a cruelty perhaps even worse than when he mocked our healthcare workers by selling “how the hell can I drink a beer with a mask on?” koozies.
Children are set to return back to school buildings soon with no mitigation efforts allowed, and alongside the news that a local, healthy JP Taravella High School student was already placed on a ventilator. Our pro-life (said through a clenched jaw) Governor, just days after suggesting Roe v. Wade be overturned, has threatened to withhold funding if any districts dare mandate masks to protect our children. Masking, he boasts, is not supported by science. (And the crowd goes wild!)
I have withdrawn my own two children, who at 10 and 5 are too young to be vaccinated, from their public schools and enrolled them in our statewide virtual public school instead. This is a privilege that I have, the ability to keep my family home safely (my husband is also working full-time from home), as we wait for our children to become eligible for vaccines.
Still, I awaken every morning to my heart breaking, my heartbeat in my ears; to my ribs feeling as if they’re cracking from the pain of knowing what loss and devastation is likely dancing on the horizon for so many. For families who are whole, but for how long? For children who for now blow out birthday candles and make wishlists for Santa Claus, but will potentially lose their lives if the days continue as they do. There is a tidal wave of pain that it feels like we simply cannot out swim. The safety of the shoreline just keeps getting further away as the sky darkens overhead from the looming threat of devastation.
And our healthcare workers – how? How are they expected to go on like this? Will their spirits ever recover from the burden we’ve placed upon their shoulders?
As protestors burn their masks outside our school board headquarters, as people refuse a vaccination that won’t just save their lives but the lives of others, as the Delta variant sweeps through Florida like wildfire with a new variant detected at its heels — I just wonder: what is it going to take for people to care about others? What is it going to take for humanity to stand up and refuse to accept even one more life lost? When my children are eligible for their vaccinations, will enough people opt to vaccinate their children that it will even make a difference? Will we, the vaccinated, continue to be bloodied and beaten by the negligence of a vaccine eligible population that refuses to do it’s part to protect one another? Will I one day be sitting upon that emergency room gurney yet again watching my child cling to life from a vaccine preventable illness that people refuse to protect her from, with their refusal to wear a simple mask or receive their immunizations?
The grief is too heavy to bear. We are a society who refuses to see (or admit) how our choices impact the lives of others and, as a result, each day, more lives are snuffed out for some misinterpretation of freedom that is something more like anarchy, like selfishness, like a cruelty that screams “I don’t care about you” at the caskets holding bodies of humans who meant the world to someone now grieving that loss forever.
I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to accept that this is the way we must live.