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The toll of COVID-19 hits home

I felt my stomach drop the Sunday night my dad called me and told me my grandma — my only living grandparent — had been diagnosed with COVID-19 after a mass-testing effort at the nursing home where she lived.

“I just talked to her and she isn’t showing any symptoms,” he reassured me.

I breathed a little easier. This could be very bad for her — she already had a history of lung problems. I can’t even count the number of times she’s been hospitalized for pneumonia or bronchitis over my 28 short years of life.

But she wasn’t showing any symptoms of being sick, he said, and I had just talked to her a few days before, on the phone. She was going to be just fine.

Still, I was mad. I was mad at everyone — even close family members — who I viewed as not taking the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic seriously. I was mad at everyone I saw around town not wearing masks. I was mad at the man who stood much too close behind me in line at Hy-Vee as I picked up groceries.

And I stayed mad and I stayed hopeful that my grandma would be just fine.

I didn’t talk to her that last week after my dad told me the dark news. I don’t know if I was just too busy with work or if I was trying to give her some time to rest or if I was just afraid of what I’d hear on the other side of the phone. I just know that for those four days, I didn’t call her.

Finally, on Thursday, I had some time before work, so I called the nursing home to talk to my grandma and check in. That’s when I was told that she wasn’t doing very well and had been “declining” for some time, even before she came in contact with the coronavirus. They told me they were now allowing “compassionate visits.” I hadn’t been to visit since March, when the pandemic forced facilities like nursing homes to suspend visitors.

Still, I believed she was going to be OK.

I had to work that afternoon, so I told the nursing home that I would visit her the next day. While I was driving to the visit, I received a call from my sister, who warned me to be prepared — Grandma was running a fever and the nursing staff hadn’t been able to get her awake.

I arrived, with my teenage nephew in tow, and slowly put on the plastic gown, N95 mask and face shield a nursing home staffer handed me. I walked down the long corridor to my grandma’s room — somehow I was moving too fast and too slow at the same time.

There she was, laying in bed. Sleeping. Her breathing alarmed me — if I closed my eyes, it sounded just like snoring, but not quite right.

I came back later that evening to stay with her throughout the night. I knew the end was near — maybe a day or two away — but I didn’t want her to be alone for one second of it. I was going to stay with her overnight, until my dad came in around 5 a.m.

I was hot and sticky in that plastic gown. The sleeves stuck to my arms, glued in place by my sweat. It was a little too warm in the room, but I always felt that nursing homes often feel a little too hot. I got used to breathing in the N95 mask pretty quickly. I wasn’t going to be comfortable, but I was going to be there all night. I owed it to her.

My grandma raised me. For several years after my parents’ divorce, my sister and I lived with our grandparents.

I settled in, turning on her TV and finding the channel I knew always aired reruns of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” a show I only recently started watching, but knew she enjoyed. I wasn’t really interested in watching it, but I needed the noise to fill the silence between my grandma’s ragged breaths.

I sat next to her bed, talking to her for the next few hours. I wasn’t always talking, though. Sometimes I just watched her face, trying to remember when it was framed by her perm, the deep crimson color of a red delicious apple. Sometimes I just cried.

Her skin is so soft and smooth, I thought to myself as I held her hand. It was warm — too warm, because of the fever. I remember noticing there were hardly any wrinkles, even at the knuckles where everyone has wrinkles.

Her breathing slowed, but kept its jagged edge. I started looking toward the door to the hallway, waiting for a nurse or an aide to walk past. No one had told me what to do if she stopped breathing.

“It’s OK if you need to go,” I whispered to her at some point. “I want you to wake up, but if you want to go, it’s OK.”

Her breaths came slower and slower, further and further apart. She exhaled and I held my own breath as long as I could. When I couldn’t hold it any longer and she hadn’t yet inhaled, I knew she was gone.

I was still holding her hand. It was still too warm from the fever.

My grandma died from respiratory failure as a result of COVID-19. Yes, she had other health problems and probably didn’t have many years or months left, but she still had some time left.

I’m still mad. I’m still angry at all the people I see around town not wearing masks. I’m still mad at people sharing memes on social media, making jokes about the coronavirus. I’m still mad at family members who still aren’t taking this virus seriously.

But most of all, I’m tired. 

Kelby Wingert is a staff writer for The Messenger.

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