Social Distancing, Ventilators, Death and the Coronavirus

I’ve crossed this date off on my calendar 15 times since the one my dad’s heart rhythm went wonky and then silent. Twenty minutes later a medical technician found him slumped over his breakfast tray and CODE BLUE blared over the intercom, a flurry of care providers compressing and jolting his chest back to beating. Afterwards, his eyebrows stood straight up like Wile E. Coyote after running through electrical wires in that old animated cartoon called the Road Runner.

They couldn’t restore the brain function though.

I’ll never forget that morning. From a thousand miles away, I called to check in on him, confident he’d be safe in a hospital, but something in his voice tipped me off  that he wasn’t. “I’ll call the airline immediately and jump on the next plane home,” I told him. Before we hung up, so I could call American Airlines, he spoke these last words. “I love you’s and the kids.”

An hour later, the rise and fall of his chest, regulated by a ventilator gave the illusion of life but his oxygen deprived brain made flat waves on the EEG monitor, because really, he was already gone.Irvin2 1

Three days later, the room in ICU was packed with some of the people he’d loved most in the world. We read Words from his favorite dog-eared, worn, leather Book, the one he’d read from on the side of his bed every night for always. We were singing to him about clinging to the Old Rugged Cross and exchanging it for a crown when the ventilator went quiet and his chest went still.Irvin10 1

All this talk of potential ventilator shortages, reading about Italy and the choices medical professionals are being asked to make regarding the value of a life based on its statistical chance of recovery feels a bit like that old ethical educational exercise about the train. In it, either one dies to protect the masses or everyone potentially dies but no one is intentionally sacrificed. I’ve always hated to grapple with that scenario even when it’s hypothetical.

I can’t imagine being denied care because of a competition for medical equipment.
To not receive the benefit of the Hippocratic oath because of scarcity.
To be cheated out of the privilege of holding my loved one’s hand and saying goodbye due to quarantines.

My daughter texted me this morning saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” “Neither have I,” I replied.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the first time the government has issued policies restricting individual rights and freedoms for the benefit of the common good.

My dad contracted tuberculosis in 1946.
By mandate, he spent the next 5 years quarantined in a sanitorium.
And no, that’s not a typo.
Not 5 days or 5 months.
5 years.
5 years, he spent in isolation!Image 3-13-20 at 12.40 AM

I remember his stories of night sweats, waking up drenched and chilled.
The relentless coughing.
I remember scratching his back and tracing the c-shaped scar lines all the way up to his shoulder blades. “That’s where they opened me up and packed my lungs so they wouldn’t collapse,” he’d tell me.
“I laid in bed day after day wondering if I was going to die. I couldn’t see my family because I was contagious, so we wrote letters to each other.”
“The nurses, some of them were nice, but I didn’t like some of them, God forgive me. They were mean!”
“The other patients, they became family. It was awful hard to lose somebody.” His voice broke when he spoke those words.
“God knew what He was doing though, because that’s when I started reading my Bible. I realized I was a sinner, separated from Him and that He loved me and could save me from the consequences of my sin.”
“I remember the day I told Him, ‘God, I don’t ever want to leave here if I’m not different than when I came in. I want to love you and trust you and serve you for the rest of the days you give me no matter how many they are.’”
“After that, I learned to pray. I had plenty of time so I started talking to God and I’ve never stopped. Every day I pray for everyone I know and love by name and I learned to do that when I was sick.”

It’s true. Two hours before he got up every single morning for the next 55 years, he’d cover his tribe in prayer. The day he died, I lost my prayer blanket and nothing’s ever been the same.

In 1948, the wonder drug, Streptomycin, came on the market and it proved to be my dad’s miracle.
Eventually, his family got visitation passes and in 1951, he was released. He walked out of the hospital he’d been required to live in for the sake of public safety, a free man, ready to re-imagine his dreams and re-start his life.

Which brings us to today’s health crisis, COVID-19.

This past week takes me back to my childhood. I remember being a kid who went to bed on a February night during a winter weather advisory then woke up just as the local public school district called their first snow day of the year. Every other school in the county jumped on the bandwagon in about two seconds. These closings and cancellations feel like the same sort of  domino effect  on steroids.

Whether or not all these extreme measures for social distancing are necessary confuses me to a level beyond my pay grade and most of the articles I’ve read, loaded with charts and graphs, make my head spin. The thing is, the President, Governors, the CDC and many other local health experts are mandating and recommending extreme precautionary measures for public health.

I could choose to
Judge them,
Ignore them,
Politicize their decisions or
Accuse them of some sort of conspiracy theory.
Or, I can lean into the opportunity to be a team player.
To be quick to submit my rights for the sake of my community,
To concede my plans for the larger agenda of public health.

None of us really want to do that.
We’re not accustomed to restrictions on our personal autonomy.
We’re suspicious about submitting to our government.
We don’t like being told what to do.
Where to go (and not go).
And how to live.
We’re culturally unskilled at making personal concessions for the greater good.

That’s what makes this pandemic a monumental opportunity.
Especially for Christ followers.
We claim to be the guardians for the inalienable rights of the most vulnerable, ferociously defending the lives of the unborn.
Today, this week, this month and maybe beyond, we get an opportunity to expand our pro-life commitment to the diabetics and immuno- surpressed cancer patients, the elderly and people with other compromising health conditions.

How should we respond to the Coronavirus chaos?
For those of us who are card carrying Christ followers, we’ve already got our marching orders.
Imitate Jesus.
This isn’t the first time somebody’s been called on for no fault of their own to make life altering sacrifices for the good of others.
Such is the way of the cross.
And ‘tis the season.
I’m not exactly sure what that will look like in my little corner of the world. Maybe you’re not sure either; but, if we ask God to make us more like Jesus, He will.Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 12.14.00 AM

None of us know how close to home this illness will impact our tribes.
But here’s what I do know.
I have this opportunity to lay down my rights, my plans and my conveniences for the sake of others.
It’s inconvenient.
It’s frustrating.
It’s anxiety producing.

But it’s also humbling.
And sacrificial.
And loving.
I get to wear some new shoes, following in His footsteps, ready to announce the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15).

My dad used to say, “I thank God for tuberculosis because without it, I don’t think I would have ever come to know His love and forgiveness because I wouldn’t have realized how much I needed it.”

Disruptions in life, they are a gift.
An invitation to take God’s hand, to let Him redirect us away from our Plan A to His plan B, C, D or Z and to trust the outcome to Him.

Nobody says it better than Ann Voskamp, “There’s a reason I am not writing the story of my life and God is. He knows how it all works out, where it all leads, what it all means. I don’t. So I will let God blow His wind, His trials, oxygen for joy’s fire. I will leave my hand open and be. Be at Peace. I will bend the knee and be small and let God give what God chooses to give because He only gives love. And I will whisper a surprise thanks.”

The older I get, the more I see them– the concentric circles of fresh mercies, new every morning.
Always have been.
Will be today.
And confident for tomorrow’s too.

Thanks be to God!

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