Going to a medical facility these days is nerve racking. However, I have been a patient of this group of Dr’s since before I can remember and this particular campus was less than a quarter mile from my childhood home. Both of those circumstances helped mitigate my fears. If you add to that general sense of comfort, the numerous emails I had received from them about the extensive procedures they were undertaking to ensure patient safety such as mandatory temperature check, hand sanitization at every entrance, required mask wearing and enforced social distancing in waiting areas made me relaxed about entering the facility if not the tests.
I felt, as much as you can about any place can these days, that my safety was paramount. Here the idea of “neighbor” and “first do no harm” would be practiced. After all, by definition the people on a medical campus would be at risk and we as good neighbors would do what we could to respect each other and protect each’s others health and well-being.
I could not have been more wrong.
One of the positive aspects about the pandemic is that parking is easier to find. I found a place directly adjacent to the entry of The Whitman Pavilion. I put on my mask and walked up the front steps to the entrance. There stood a patient, mask off, blocking the entrance, having a heated conversation with someone on her cell phone. I could, due to a vivid imagination and having watched too many internet videos, almost see the plume of microdroplets dispersing in the air around her. How can I pass without covering myself with her cloud of contaminates? I felt like saying something rude in Portuguese so she would not understand what I said about her but with enough force that she would move but settled for a loud “Ahem.” It worked. She moved to an adjacent sidewalk. But it left me with the first of many unanswerable questions.
Why do people think they need to take off their masks to speak on their cell phone?
Inside the Group, it was as advertised. I was directed to sanitize my hands visa vis a handy automated Purell dispenser, my temperature was checked via a digital infrared thermometer and I was directed to a waiting room that had been modified to ensure social distancing. All of the above served to lower my blood pressure over the incident outside and reassure me.
One of the things I really despise about Dr.’s offices is how they make you wait for scheduled appointments. While I understand that things do not go as planned and delays occur this happens with such smooth regularity, I am sure it is planned. Overbooking makes for a steady income but is a statement that the physician believes their time is more important than yours. At the medical group this means that you have to watch, via flat panel display, the local NJ news channel. Under normal circumstances, this would be benign news about the local tomato festival or the opening of a dog park. However, these days almost all of the news, including on the NJ news channel, is about the pandemic, the increase in infections, and how sick it makes people. I understand the need to distract people while you are purposely making them wait, the shiny object that diverts your attention from your timing being wasted, but it did beg a medical question.
Why would medical professionals purposely expose people to information that createxs far more anxiety than answers and instead of distracting patients it makes them antsy to leave this viral hotbed.
I could have distracted myself with my smart phone. Surfing the web. Reading the paper. Playing games or finding out what stupidity was on Facebook. But my strategy was not to take my cellphone out of my zippered pocket. I did not want it exposed to whatever evil pathogens might be lurking here should I receive an urgent phone call and need to answer it. And normally, waiting rooms have magazines to distract you but in the age of Covid, they had been removed. As a consequence, I had no choice but to listen News 12 and their news stories about how victims of the disease had their immune system destroyed and were taking months to recuperate and the story of one New Jersey family who had lost 6 members.
I was greatly relieved when a nurse in shield and mask came to fetch me for my 2nd Shingrex shot. Just before I left for Brazil, I had a physical. It was the source of all of my appointments today. One of the things I was told during that visit was that the previous vaccine for shingles, which I had gladly taken, was only 40% effective. But the new and improved shot had 90% efficacy. My father would have raised hell about the medical corporations foisting drugs on us they knew were ineffective and then charging us more for a new drug that was better and that certainly went through my head when I was provided with this information. However, I also had known too many people who had suffered through shingles and had no desire to join that club. As a consequence, I agreed to the inoculation which would require two shots to be fully immunized.
With a newly punctured arm, I departed the building. The same woman was still chattering away mask free on her cell phone at the entrance. Under my breath I gave her a Brazilian benediction of “File de Puta” as I passed but she continued her conversation, nonetheless. Perhaps she thought I was sneezing…
My next appointment was on the other side of the medical campus. Being the health nut I am and , as my next appointment was still an hour in the future, I decided to drive over and park there. At least then I could wait in my car, limiting my exposure to other folks. While waiting I engaged in two of my favorite activities: Listening to my Audible Book, (Robert A. Heinlein’s newly discovered book “The Pursuit of the Pankera.”) and people watching. The book was good, the people watching disappointing. The latter not because of lack of people to watch but because of what I am observed them doing.
It was lunch time and the view out my car window was of the driveway that circled the campus. As often happens on large office complexes a number of the employees used the drive as a place to stretch their legs and exercise by walking multiple loops around the property. Most of these folks were dressed, not surprisingly, in scrubs. While not disturbing it was a concerning as the purpose of scrubs is allowing health care workers access to clothing that could be easily washed and not exposed patients to potential contagions. I guess this would not have been too concerning except that the average group size was five, often tightly packed so they could converse with each other without wearing masks.
I get it. Exercising in masks sucks. I know because I had done it every day for the past 3 months. It makes it more difficult to breathe, when they get damp due to perspiration they stick to your face, and communication is challenging. But I put up with it because I thought it was protecting my neighbor. It is what I hoped they would do for me. But here were health care workers who had been on the front lines of the Covid 19 pandemic in NJ. They knew the danger of this virus yet they were behaving in what I thought was a reckless fashion. Perhaps this was because they were letting down their guard as the worst of the crisis had passed. Or, maybe they were similar to battle hardened troops who knew more about the battle than I, the greenhorn with nothing but book knowledge and a sense of self preservation, so I should not let their behavior concern me too much.
My next appointment was the one in which I was most hopeful. I had arranged to be tested for the Covid 19 antibodies. Elaine and I had been in Asia, on a cruise ship, during the early stages of the outbreak. When we had returned from our journey, I had felt lousy for a week with a sinus infection and light temperature. Since, then I had worked near the epicenter of the NY outbreak in Rockland county, been on numerous airplanes and had been residing in a country with the second largest number of infections in the world. I had ample opportunity to be exposed and in my heart of hearts hoped that I would test positive for the virus’s antibodies. Even though my understanding is that they don’t know if having the antibodies prevent you from a recurrence of the disease I thought (with my vast amount of medical training) that if I had the antibodies and the disease did not lock me down I could (sorry for the play on words) breathe a lot easier about catching the disease.
The location for the testing was the cafeteria of the medical complex. It is a low lying building with a patio outside where diners can enjoy their meal al fresco. When I arrived at the facility, masked up, I followed the signs to where there was supposed to be a que for testing. As I approached the entrance, I was stopped by a uniformed but unmasked security guard who scrambled to place a mask on his face. He explained, while holding a mask over his face, that testing would not resume until 1 and I should wait until then to line up. I look for and found an unoccupied table properly social distanced from other and waited.
It was a good place to look at fellow testees. There was a woman with her mask serving as a cravat talking loudly into her cell phone that was on speaker. I have a long-standing problem with people speaking on cell phones in public but aside from that don’t you think that if you are here to be tested for a disease you should cover up. Masks do not interfere with your ability to yap.
A Mom and Dad were nearby with their two out of control pre-school children. The kids did not want to wear their masks. They thought nothing of running without masks around the patio like it was there personal playground. My mother’s reaction to this type of behavior would have been very judgmental. I had, as a child, heard and felt her displeasure when I was misbehaving. Clearly this Mom and Dad had a different style parenting and judging by their children’s behavior an inferior one to Moms. And, while most parenting books place an emphasis on teaching your children to share, I don’t think any of them would think highly of teaching your kids to share Covid 19.
And then of course were the outliers. I mean that two ways. Not only were they on the periphery of the patio but they were wearing masks and social distancing from people. My survey of the area had identified far more non mask wearers (I include in that tally those who were their masks as neck warmers and those who didn’t see the need to cover their noses) than mask wearers and by and large the nons didn’t think social distancing rules were meant for them.
Let me summarize. We are in the middle of a pandemic that has killed approximately 5% of those infected in the United States, in one of the states hardest hit by that pandemic killing almost 11% of those infected, at a medical center where people are sick and particularly susceptible to infection, getting tested for the virus because either you had it or think you have it, and you chose not to wear a mask. What are you thinking? Which brought me to my second imponderable question of the day.
Do people believe that this pandemic will disappear magically, and they have no responsibility in helping vanquish it?
Personal responsibility used to be the mantra of the party currently in power. However, they have seemed to have abandoned it for the axiom “Every man for themselves.”
Standing there in line I tried to adopt my only mantra if for no other reason than to prevent my mask from steaming my glasses. Perhaps some of these people had medical conditions that prevented them from wearing masks? It could be that have been misled and believe that you can only catch the virus in an indoor environment? Maybe they had been brainwashed by Fox TV into believing this was only a slightly more severe flu and they were only getting tested to prove that the whole thing was a hoax. Needless to say, my mantra didn’t work, my glasses still fogged, and my blood pressure continue to spike.
Testing, when it finally resumed, was quite organized. You were invited to wash your hands, scanned for fever and asked a number of questions about symptoms you may or may not have had. Your name was then checked off a list, a piece of paper was vital information on it handed to you, and you were directed to a large room with a group of work areas with modular office like partitions were strategically placed around the periphery. Each of the technicians wore a Tyvek suit with hood, masks, shield, and gloves. After being directed to one of the booths. The technician patiently (irony) tells you she is going to poke your finger take a drop of blood and wait ten minutes to see if you have no antibodies, the antibodies you produce during an active infection, or the antibodies left behind when you have recovered. After the droplet of blood is harvested, there is time to kill and I ask her how the Covid 19 crisis has been for her. I can only see her eyes and they speak volumes as she tells me how horrific it has been to be on the front line. The overwhelming illness, the long hours, the illness and death of friends and colleagues.
I ask her why she thinks that people are not wearing masks? And she just shakes her head but before she can utter a word of explanation, the room is filled with a horrific wail. The type of cry you would expect to hear from someone who is having their toenails removed with plyers or their skinned burned with cigarettes. It turns out it is not torture. It is one of the bratty kids who is begging her mother not to have the test with the same decibel level of 747 on take off and the pitch of a soprano. She is terrified and I am ashamed to admit I have a schadenfreude moment. I know this is beneath me but somehow it seems apt that this little girl whose parents had let her endanger the rest of us with her maskless play were somehow getting retribution for their folly.
But her behavior also seemed a metaphor for the past three months. We as a country run around as if nothing is wrong and then scream and wail when we are tested.
The wait seems interminable. Watching a test kit of a timer is the Covid equivalent of watching paint dry. Added to that the screams of two children piteously begging anyone who would listen not to force them to have the test. When the timer finally hits the ten-minute mark it is revealed that I have no antibodies for Covid 19. I neither have or have had the disease. I am grateful for the first and disappointed for the latter. Life would be far simpler if I could worry less.
[Part 3: Tomorrow 6/30/20]