I started my last paper. “American politics are becoming more and more polarized …” Beep. Oxygen level: 91%. Beep. Oxygen rate: 90%.
I sat in my room trying to do my homework and finish the semester while next door my dad struggled to breathe. Worse, it was my fault: I gave my father COVID-19.
Like many other college students, I started the semester on campus, but in virtual mode. By the time my college reconsidered its plans to bring students back to campus, I had already signed a lease. Knowing that I would be more productive with my peers than at home, I spent the semester in Philadelphia instead of Chicago, where I’m from. That is, until the Thanksgiving break.
Around Thanksgiving vacation, I had to make a choice between going home or staying on campus until the end of the semester. There were pros and cons for each.
Coming home meant I could spend more time with my family, especially during a year that has shown us all that time is precious, given how fast and ruthless illness can be. On the other hand, it would mean the possibility of passing the coronavirus on to my parents, who are in a significantly higher risk age range than my college peers.
In college, I got tested every week and practiced social distancing. During the entire semester, I was able to avoid catching the virus, even living in an environment that seemed to reproduce it.
The week before Thanksgiving, my roommates and I took all the precautionary measures. We tested a few days before returning home and then quarantined to make sure our negative test results would remain as accurate as possible before we started our travels.
The 13+ hour drive from the East Coast to the Midwest was not really an option for me. The dangers of rest stops, hotel stops and fatigue outweighed the risks of a short, hopefully safe plane ride.
But as I got on my flight the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I immediately wanted to leave. The plane was packed to the brim and I found myself stuck in an aisle seat next to a father and his child. People were pulling on their masks to eat food they bought at the airport just before getting on the flight. I had never felt so claustrophobic, aware that I was trapped in a space that was definitely not immune to viruses.
A week went by at home and I felt like I had moved from Philadelphia to Chicago without any repercussions. Someone up there was watching over me, I thought. Then at dinner I had a bite of my mom’s homemade meal, which is usually tastier than anything I eat in college. Except this time it didn’t taste like anything. I took another bite. Always nothing. I felt a weight on my chest.
The next day, I made an appointment at the nearest test site, and I tested positive for coronavirus.
While finishing my last week of class via Zoom, I was quarantined in my room with mild symptoms. My family was tested soon after I tested positive, and to my relief they were all negative.
A week and a half later, I was walking from my bedroom to the bathroom when I heard my dad cough downstairs. I texted my sister, “Is dad coughing?” ”
“Yes a lot,” she replied via text, “… but he just tested again and came back negative.”
It calmed my concerns a bit. There’s no way he would test negative twice in 10 days if he actually had the virus, right? Wrong.
Over the next few days, my father’s cough continued as it became more and more difficult for him to breathe. His symptoms and his test results did not match, so he made an appointment for a chest scan. A few hours later, he received his results. He had COVID pneumonia in his lungs.
We considered sending him to the hospital, but in the end we didn’t. My dad is rooted in his family, and my mom felt that the added stress of being away from us might hinder his recovery more than it would help. So she took care of him in their room in our house, potentially sacrificing his own health.
In the days that followed, a home pulse oximeter measured her oxygen levels as they fell lower and lower, fluctuating between the 80s and 90s. My dad, who a week earlier had been able to do long walks with my mom to Lake Michigan, was bedridden. I saw him grab the handrail of our spiral staircase to get to his bedroom, lifting himself up with every step. Hearing him try to finish a full sentence was like watching someone on their last legs try to finish a marathon.
A week ago, I had been busy finding the mental strength to catch up with class, and now I was facing my father’s battle with an illness that could potentially result in death. Every day I would wake up in a panic, with the guilt that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t decided to buy a plane ticket.
What if I hadn’t come home? What if I had stayed on campus? What if I had taken another plane? I knew the pain of losing a parent would be unimaginable – made worse if caused by my own actions. I wasn’t sure if I would ever forgive myself.
Luckily, my dad made an almost full recovery. Two months later, it seems the worst is over. But my experience is a stark reminder of the consequences of the choices we make during this time – choices we are often forced to make in place of real policy to guide us.
If I had known what would come after I got on the plane, I wouldn’t have prioritized seeing my family over not risking their health by traveling during a pandemic. I wouldn’t even have gone back to campus in the first place.
For other students who will inevitably be grappling with this same decision, I sincerely urge them to weigh the risk of transmitting the virus versus seeing the family in person. The association of COVID with death is still a distant concept for some. It shouldn’t be all about watching a loved one take what might be their last breath to internalize the potentially deadly consequences of our actions.
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