The Corner

U.S.

‘Last Night We Had a Bizarre Conversation over Dinner’

A nurse in New York City, March 27, 2020 (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Yesterday, I had an Impromptus column, with a typical variety of items. The first had to do with the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, whose captain pleaded for help to save his crew: not from an enemy navy or from stormy seas, but from the coronavirus.

I quoted a report from the New York Times, which said, “A senior Navy official on Sunday sought to play down the urgency of the situation on the Roosevelt . . .” My comment:

You will know what I mean when I say, I am all for measured tones and cool heads. I have been alarmed at alarmism, so to speak, my entire life. But there is a time for downplaying and a time for “up-playing,” if you will. In my judgment, this is no time for downplaying. Lives are at risk, and, in some parts of the world, they are piling up bodies like cordwood.

I received a letter from a reader, Leonard Van Maanen, from my home state of Michigan. It is one of the rawest things I have read in recent weeks, which is saying something. I am going to publish it — with Mr. Van Maanen’s permission — just the way it came in to me, with no editing whatsoever.

His letter left me with, among other things, a humble awe at what some people are willing to do for others.

Dear Mr. Nordlinger, greetings from Michigan.

I am a retired health care worker. Thirteen years working in a Detroit area ER, and sixteen years working in the organ donation/transplantation field. My wife [who I met at work!] is a thirty-five year nursing veteran. She currently works in SE MI’s Covid19 hot spot in Oakland County. As of today, they are seeing 20 deaths per day due to the pandemic, and that number will climb, horrendously. And now her co-workers and friends are dying.

Last night we had a bizarre conversation over dinner, as she prepared to go back in to work. We actually made arrangements concerning our dog and cat if and when she brought the Covid19 home, and the high likelihood of my death, and possibly hers, too. Those kids out there who call this pandemic the “Boomer Remover” can have a laugh at my expense, then, I won’t mind.

It is “nice” that health care workers nationwide are being shown many words and actions of support…they deserve them. But…they have always been there!

We were there for a Hepatitis B breakout. An easily communicable, deadly disease. And West Nile, H1N1, Bird Flu, and HIV/AIDS. There for the daily assaults, the drunks, psychos, fakers, wife-beaters, child abusers, horrific traumas and heart attacks.

We were there for the complaints about wait times and triage priorities. “Why did that guy get seen before me? I was here first!” “Well, he was dead, and you were constipated!”

A nurse in my ER was there when the ambulance brought in a horribly, fatally injured, unidentified, unrecognizable, young teenage girl, only to find out that we were working on, and losing, her daughter.

I have had patients file false complaints of “rudeness” and even sexual impropriety to “pay me back.” In the early days of HIV, I had a semi-drunk patient, [who faked a suicide attempt in order to get attention from his soon-to-be ex-wife] spit in my eyes, and then giggle while he said “I just got tested for AIDS.” In those days, we could not test the patient without their consent, so it was me who had to be tested for the next six months, basically putting my life on hold for half a year.

I can tell you, nobody but my co-workers appreciated me then.

I am a US Army veteran, and a retired paramedic. I can tell you this. Health care workers deal with unimaginable stress and medical horrors on a daily basis in “good times.” And now add to this the pandemic. And still, they are there. And they deal with the blood and battle on a daily basis for their entire career, day after day. Imagine being in a real war for decades at a time. PTSD? It’s as common as a morning coffee!

It is no wonder to me that health care has higher divorce, suicide, substance abuse rates across the board.

But, looking back on the past, and now wishing I could help, but being too old and medically unsuitable to do so, I have never been more proud of my wife, my peers and friends with whom I had the privilege to work. We loved each other, supported each other [with no help from our owners and administrators] and dealt with the daily hell with courage, skill, humanity and humor.

So, if and when we get a handle on the current pandemic crisis, and when the death toll at large, and amongst health care workers is finally tallied, and things “get back to normal,” I only hope that the current respect for those that go into harm’s way won’t dry up and blow away.

Each of us has, over the course of years spent in this field, memories, good, bad and horrific. One stands out for me. The night of a trailer fire. We got all four patients in via ambulance in less than ten minutes. An adult, followed by three babies, the oldest five years of age. I remember carrying them one at a time, wrapped in white plastic, to the morgue. We were all taking it hard. I had to go to our closet/break room to hang my head and cry a little bit, when our ER doctor put her arm around my shoulder and whispered “at least these kids had someone to make an effort to save them. We were here.” They still are. But now they’re dying. And still they serve.

Thanks for listening, God Bless you and keep you and yours safe in this perilous time,

Len Van Maanen

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