Life Lessons with COVID-19: Lesson 3

(This is a series of lessons I’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2)

Jonathan was scared. Perhaps even terrified — the way one might be when staring death in the face.

Several days earlier he had been diagnosed with COVID-19, a not-unexpected occurrence being married to a nurse who had been battling on the front lines of the pandemic for some time. She was the first to be diagnosed, on April 22. Jonathan was tested the same day, and by May 1, everyone in the household, including his son and mother, had tested positive. To listen to him describe the situation, the diagnoses were but a formality.

From roughly 400 miles south of his home I watched his updates with concern for Jonathan’s family, but particularly for him. He is his 50’s, and in his home state of Rhode Island this is the age group most likely to be infected by the disease. He also has a history of diabetes and heart issues which places him in a high-risk category. On May 4th, he contacted his doctor and received instructions to go to the hospital. He shared the news with us on Facebook.

My doctor said it’s time for me to go to the hospital. Shortness of breath and low oxygen levels. I don’t know where this will end up, but I want to take the opportunity to say I love you all and am so grateful for the ways each of you have contributed to my life.

Pray that I can avoid intubation.

God can still provide a way. Grateful for his presence.

If I’m not there, take care of my son when he gets to [college] please.

Jonathan’s high-risk category hadn’t been a secret from us, so the news carried more weight than it might have otherwise.

Those of us who include prayer as part of our life, did so, and his Facebook page gives testimony to the great number of people who passed on the request for prayer to others. Scores of us shared his status. We might say the status went viral in our own circle of influence.

He would spend 4 days in the hospital, was never intubated, and was discharged to the theme of “Rocky” as has been the practice for recovered COVID-19 patients at the hospital where he was treated. COVID-19 has proven to be a sneaky experience for the infected, but all signs point to a complete recovery for my friend.

As we all celebrated in our Facebook-message ways, Jonathan began to spend a considerable amount of time sharing with us the details of his hospital stay and expound upon what got him through the virus. He is a man of the Christian faith, and gave thanks for the prayers which sustained him and brought him to a place of recovery.

By now we’ve all seen the recovery stories.

I was healthy…then I was sick…tested positive…this is what it was like…it’s hell…I’m glad to be alive…please wear a mask. I beg you. This is no joke.

Something along those lines.

To be sure, all of these elements are in Jonathan’s story. But his descriptions went a bit deeper.

It was as if he wanted to help us understand not only the effects of the virus, but also the fear he experienced.

I want to start by saying that when I went into the hospital for COVID-19, I was afraid … very afraid. At times the fear was overwhelming. Yes, I recited every verse in the Bible about not being fearful or anxious, and I knew that God was my protector, fortress, deliverer, and so on. Understand, my fear was not about dying. I know where I’m going when I die. My fear was first about suffering, and then dying alone. I’ve got this thing about that. I’ve prayed for many years that this would not happen. But here I was in a very real scenario where I could find myself unable to breathe and potentially facing intubation and death.

He went on to talk about being fearful for his family, for his wife having to deal with the loss of her husband, and their son going off to college in the fall. He spoke to feeling frustrated that he wouldn’t be there to usher his son into adulthood. It was a glimpse into the mind of a person facing their death.

“When I was sitting in the hospital, I kept thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ ‘How did I get here?’”

Jonathan knew all too well the reasons he was there. The ER doctor had been kind enough to remind him of his high-risk category as he was admitted.

But even in the midst of the challenges and questions, Jonathan was able to find gratitude others might not consider.

Another reason I was here was that I had the advantage of white privilege. I was here because as a white person, I had a good job with good pay and with good insurance that gave me access to good health care. But there are many people of color in my state and across the country that do not have this same privilege. … Many people of color in our state work in lower-paying jobs, are more likely to get laid off and have to collect unemployment due to the pandemic, and may not have adequate health insurance to cover their expenses. My heart breaks for these people. Please let us pray and take action so that these kinds of disparities do not exist in our communities any longer.

As for his recovery, he considered himself “lucky,” and was happy to be home with his family again.

Then Jonathan did something I’m not sure anyone expected.

He defended the virus.

He couldn’t help himself. His take on his experience — and perhaps our experience — with the virus is informed by his work as a biologist.

Although I and my family have been very sick, I do not place blame on this virus for attacking us. The virus is doing what it is supposed to do (some might say “designed to do” or “evolved to do”). …People often tend to vilify that which causes harm to humans. I’ve heard people say that this virus is evil. However, evil signifies immoral or wicked action. How can something like a virus … decide between right and wrong, and thereby commit an immoral action? Immoral by whose standards? If you really want to say this about a virus, then consider what humans have done to this planet. Humans commit far worse atrocities on other humans and on other species on a daily basis, and we can decide between right and wrong.

He pressed his point by asking if a mountain lion attacking an unwary hiker is evil, if a snake that bites when threatened is evil, if poison ivy is evil for secreting an oil to protect itself from harm.

In the same way, I cannot blame the coronavirus for infecting me to try and replicate itself.

I found Jonathan’s statements about the virus reassuring, and I can’t help but think back to my thoughts when I read his announcement that he was going to be hospitalized. While the announcement was concerning and made me sad, it did not come across as panicked.

It was as if he was resigned to his place within the biological sphere. He understood biology, how viruses can affect humans, and how sometimes viruses are what causes our death. For him to die — as much as he didn’t want to — would have been a natural occurrence.

And even in the midst of the sadness, I get the sense that as Jonathan stared his mortality in the face, he was able to do so in a manner that appreciated his part in the biological system.

The illness wasn’t pleasant.

But the illness also wasn’t evil.

We’re by no means out of this pandemic. And when this is over, there will always be something else to force us to consider our mortality — what some would refer to as an existential crisis.

When that day comes for me, I hope I’m able to consider it with the bravery and understanding Jonathan did. I hope I’m able to understand my place in the story of life.

I hope I can look at it with dignity.

Just like Jonathan.

(Jonathan Twining is an Associate Professor of Biology at Eastern Nazarene College.)

Freelance Writer. Nonstop Thinker. Lover of life.

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