Tuesday 7 April 2020

"To be or not to be"

I expect that a lot of us have close working relationships with our family doctor.  I know that I do.  In this time of isolation, I am happy to report that my family doctor, Derelie Mangin, has taken to telephoning me every few days to see how I am and to ask for an update on how my retirement residence, Caroline Place, is handling things.  So far, I am happy to give her positive reports.

The other day, she asked me a very difficult question.  She asked me whether or not, should I contact the coronavirus and should I be in need of a ventilator and should there be another patient in need of a ventilator who is half my age but should there be only one ventilator, would I be prepared to let the other patient receive help to my own exclusion.

Now that question really stumped me.  Fortunately, in that circumstance there would be a health care team making those decisions.  One factor would be that I am eighty-two years old.  My friend, John Lockead, tells me that, at eighty-one, he would be prepared to stand aside for someone half his age.  My nephew, Robert Cooke, a fifty-year-old firefighter who is the father of two teenage boys, says that he thinks he should have preference over a twenty-five-year-old who might already be abusing his body with drugs.  Those decisions are being triaged in Italy at the moment but I have not heard anything about how it is being done.

History suggests that human beings are not always kind to each other in these circumstances.  There was a cholera epidemic in Hamilton in 1854.  The city had 20,000 people and 550 of them died.  (Imagine those figures.)  Apparently, they were not always kind to each other during times of panic.  David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, speaks of a plague in Florence in 1348 and quotes a book written at the time as saying "kinfolk held aloof, and never met... nay, what is more, and scarcely to believe, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate."  He quotes a journal writing about the London plague of 1665 as saying "the dangers of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another."  There are similar stories about the Spanish flu of 1918 and Brooks offers the opinion that "there were few books or plays written about it.  Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.  Perhaps it is because people did not like who they had become.  It was a shameful memory and therefore depressed."

I don't see it like that today.  I have caregivers coming in here three times a day and going elsewhere to help people in need.  In doing so, they are putting their own health and lives in danger.  Yet, it is not uncommon for a caregiver to leave here at 9:30 PM, wait for a bus on the system that has reverted to Saturday schedules, go home, shower, get ready for bed, get a few hours sleep, and get back on the bus to come here to get me up at 730 in the morning. Many of them move back and forth between Caroline Place and a neighbouring retirement residence in which there has been an outbreak of the virus.  Those caregivers have had to isolate themselves for fourteen days because they were in contact with people who had the virus but, nevertheless, needed their help.  They know they are in danger but they come to work every day because they know I need their help.

I am very grateful.

The theologian Dr. Barbara Holmes tells us that when communities are in crisis, first comes the fear and, after the fear, the wondering "where is God?".  Yet, "during a crisis of this magnitude, you do not have the luxury of responding as an individual.  Suffering cannot be absorbed by individuals, no matter how tenuous and invisible the bonds of community are.  Individuals cannot respond.  You must do it as community, for safety, for comfort, and for survival." Fr. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan writer who is currently influencing me quite a bit, echoes her final point when he says "we cannot face large-scale crisis as individuals; we cannot carry the pain of this reality on our own, nor can we only look out for ourselves.  The pain is communal and so must be the response."

I haven't, yet, told you my response to Dr. Mangin's question.  I admit that I wasn't as forthright as John Lockead.  I answered that I understand the final decision needs to be made by the healthcare team in place at that moment but that I would sure like to stay alive.

She said she understood.