By Dr. Brandon Ayre
I can't give you his name, only that I liked him. He was an old-time Vermonter.
“Oh… he’s a character,” said one of the nurses. We were in the dictation room. “But be careful,” she added. “He’s a talker.”
This was early in the epidemic, and he was the first patient for whom I’d had to ‘glove and gown’. Though it’s since become routine, ‘gloving and gowning’ is yet another one of those alliterative euphemisms of which American medicine is so fond. The wordplay downplays the dread, for all involved. For an E.R. doc, like me, you learn to file it quickly, under Don’t Think About It -- Just Do It.
In the beginning, there was nothing funny about donning the paper hat, and clear plastic goggles, the N-95, and the wrap-around face shield, then the full-length gown, the two sets of gloves, and the blue paper shoe covers. Then of course, humor takes over. We began to call putting on full PPE ‘Going Spaceman’. And that was before we began to wear respirators. Those lend even more terror to the equation.
My current one is a tightly fitting, clear plastic face mask, the two polypropylene filters of which dangle gayly above my forehead. The filters make me look—and feel—like a giant mosquito who just happens to also be playing third-string goalie for some local NHL team. I am not proud of this, but in the beginning, thinking about how frightening it must have been for any patient to be greeted by care givers they would be completely unable to recognize out in the hallway was darkly pleasurable. The whole process was overwhelming: the PPE wasn’t just physically defensive, it was psychically as well.
Yet when you’re dealing with pain, and death, it’s hard not to protect yourself, grim though the humor always is. I felt nothing of the kind however, when I walked in and saw this guy. He was truly sick. Yet like I said, he was also an old-time Vermonter. They come in two types of jars, these gentlemen. (We’ll have to leave the Gentlewomen for later.) They are either talkers, so garrulous, they are veritable mountain streams, or they are Tutankhamens, so terse the oxygen can barely get in, let alone out. This fellow, bless him, was the former.
Usually, I like to sit down and let the OTV’s ramble, because there’s little point in trying to stop them. Perhaps it is the combination of winters that used to be much harder, and of mountains as tough and stubborn as their human counterparts. Perhaps it is also their need to hold you at an arm’s length while they barrage you, so they can examine you, like some second-hand tractor they’re thinking of buying.
Plus, remember: this is all happening in a space no bigger than a tool shed. Also, what nobody tells you about PPE is how damn hot it is under there. Forget about itching your nose. It’s also impossible to wipe the fog off your protective glasses.
“I got sick a couple of weeks ago,” he says, “and I just ain’t been able to shake it. You know, I got the oxygen at home, but…”
I say nothing. He doesn’t like that. I also sense he is slightly affronted by my mask and gown. Though he has the sense not to get into that. I guess we both do.
“So I’ve spent the past four days in bed. I haven’t been able to get to the bathroom. I…”
“It’s bad, right?” I say, suddenly. I don’t just say it--I shout it. I have to. The oxygen is hissing, the monitor is beeping, and my face feels like it’s suffocating. He’s only four feet away, but it suddenly feels like half a mile. I didn’t mean to, but by not letting him ramble, I have driven my fear into him. His eyes begin to tear. Mine too.
“Yeah,” he says, and just as suddenly I know, with razor certainty, that this man is my first COVID. In that same instant, he knows it too. I don’t want him to die. I want all the statistics to be wrong. But I’ve been doing this a long time, and these moments, as chilling, and as cold as life gets, have visited me all too often.
“You’re pretty sick, buddy,” I shout. “We’re going to have to admit you...”
“Really?” he says, more fear leaking out.
“Don’t worry…” I stop myself. “You’re going to be O.K.,” I lie. O.K.?”
“O.K.,” he says, though we both though it isn’t really. Because we both know we’re not really the ones in charge here.
A few weeks later, a nurse from Infection Control calls me. She asks me if when I saw this gentleman, I was wearing ‘Full Protection’.
“Yes,” I say. “I…”
I stop. She pauses too. Then asks: “Did you know he died?”
I inhale. “No. But…” She doesn’t say anything. “But I’m not surprised. He was very sick. It was Corona, right?”
“Yes. So we wanted to make sure you weren’t having any symptoms. Have you had any…Cough? Fever? Trouble breathing?”
“No,” I say, feeling lost and, somehow, responsible. I also feel yet another one of those bullet-sized holes in my soul. I must have hundreds of them by now: one for every patient I’ve lost.
Then--it always happens--I feel grateful. You’re still here, my solar plexus says. Still here! Though I can feel him leaking out of me. He wasn’t supposed to go! my head yells to my heart. He was only 64! But the virus doesn’t care. The virus is a threshing machine on autopilot.
A week later I read his obituary on-line. A lot of people knew and loved him. Unfortunately, there could be no funeral service—no communal gatherings allowed. I took solace in also reading that the line of cars and trucks in his cortege was so long, it bound up traffic for miles.
Dr. Brandon Ayre
I am an E.R. doctor who also writes fiction. I live and work in southwestern Vermont, though I have also worked in Saratoga and Gloversville, NY.
I learned of the NYS Writers Institute when I took a course on the Short Story several years ago with James Lasdun.