How are you?

“How are you?” is such an innocuous question that we hear all over the world.  Right now, I bet we all tell a white lie.  I went to the supermarket today, met the checkout staff who I have known for more than a decade.  “How are you?” she asked, smiling behind a mask.  “I am good, thank you, how are you?” “Good, good…” she responded.  It certainly wasn’t entirely true on my part and knowing how awful her job has been recently, I doubt that my favorite lady at the shop was good either.  2021 hasn’t worked out so great for Texans, or anyone, so far.  Our bushes and trees are a visible sign of the death after our big freeze.  They droop sadly, just hanging onto life or perhaps not.

Just like everyone else my mental health has taken a beating.  There was a little red letter day last week when we were contacted by the Houston Health Department to schedule our appointments for Covid-19 vaccines.  The only problem was that it was one of the mega vaccination sites in downtown Houston which is about 40 miles south of us.  Teddy and I decided to book a hotel the night before so we wouldn’t panic about getting there.  In Houston it is not the time or distance that is a problem but sheer volume of traffic.  You can’t tell if a journey is going to take one or two hours, especially with any breakdowns or accidents on a packed interstate.

The furthest I have driven in the past year is to our own town center, about 20 minutes away.  I last did that journey about 6 months ago and since then my journeys have been no more than 10 minutes.  Driving was a skill that I came to me late in life because of anxiety.  Medication finally allowed me to tamp down the fear to pass my test when I was 45, here in Texas.  We decided that Teddy would drive my car down to the hotel and I was so afraid that I lay horizontally in the passenger side so I couldn’t see the traffic.  Horse blinkers would have been more comfortable.

The hotel was in the most awful location but close to the gigantic stadium used for the mass vaccination.  It had seen much better days but it was clean.  There was no food or drink available.  Was the water even safe after the boil order following the big freeze?  The air conditioning sounded like a WWII bomber.  I was so cold that I went into bed fully clothed, including my fleece jacket.  Things improved slightly when we found a nice Italian restaurant that delivered a gluten free pizza and a bottle of wine.  Medication kicked in and I fell into a disturbed sleep.  My husband had to conduct a zoom meeting with colleagues in the far east at 8 pm – just one more thing to add to our disquiet.

The next day we set off for our vaccinations.  We could see the stadium across the road from our hotel but we had to go in the opposite direction, making a U-turn under the Beltway to approach.  We followed the signs for VACCINATIONS and entered an arena that was truly a military operation.  There were thousands of National Guard, Houston City workers, Sheriffs and cars full of people getting vaccinated.  Health is a great leveler – bashed up little Honda Civics alongside fancy Bentleys and myriad trucks.  We had received texts confirming our appointment times – Teddy got a barcode but apparently my phone is too old to get them…

I am full of awe for all the people working at that vaccination site.  Somehow, they kept us all moving, made sure we were who we said we were and told us we were getting the Pfizer vaccine today.  You could see everyone was a bit shell-shocked at the scale of the operation and we all said, “Yes, sir or ma’am”.  I had brought all our medications but no one asked for anything, other than ID.  We finally reached the vaccinations area and it was given by a very young medic from the National Guard.  As I lifted up my sleeve, I noticed how much muscle mass I have lost in my arms.  Ah well, at least I lived long enough to get the vaccine.

The journey home was less frenetic but I still stayed horizontal.  When we were about 4 miles from home, I finally sat up with some of the stress of the whole experience abating.  I went straight into the shower and all the clothes went in the wash.  Then I went to bed and stayed there for a couple of days.  Most people don’t feel too bad after the first jab but everything hurt – my eye sockets, every muscle ached and I was cold.  They say that a strong reaction is a good thing but mine might have been equally due to anxiety.

I saw a heartwarming piece on CNN about a grandmother who was so frozen with fear, even after being fully inoculated, that her doctor gave her a prescription for a hug from her granddaughter, who was masked.  That’s how I feel.  A tiny amount of my fear has gone but I feel no desire to leave our hibernation at home.  Future vacations fill me with panic.  For a moment, I wondered if I should ask for an increase in medication but I think time will be enough.  Step by step we will emerge from this year of dread.  We won’t feel fabulous as soon as we are inoculated; each time we hear about a variant we may tremble. 

On the other hand, I will enjoy my first coffee with a friend, wearing make-up and sitting in a restaurant in time.  Now we have to vaccinate the world.  I am beyond grateful to have received just one shot.  Thank you to all the scientists and other staff who worked on the Vaccine program in a global effort.  I think it is okay to say a little white lie and keep smiling.  Know many of us feel the same and you can share your feelings with someone you trust. Perhaps me?

Dr. Carlos Araujo-Preza, RIP

DR. CARLOS ARAUJO-PREZA

Last night I was watching CNN news when a familiar face and name was on the screen.  In shock, I recognized my beloved lung specialist and he had died on November 30th 2020 of Covid-19.  According to the various news reports, he had worked 80 hour weeks since the Pandemic started trying to help his hospitalized patients.  As a respiratory expert he was always on the front line for Covid-19.  He was 52 with two young adult children.  He was a brilliant mind who had immigrated to the USA from El Salvador enhancing the lives of all his patients. This is the article from CNN.

He was utterly charming and warm, able to empathize and sympathize with compassion.  I first met him 8 years ago when I was the victim of a traumatic car crash.  Initially they took me to ER to check my spine as it was a rear end impact.  To everyone’s surprise the scans revealed an egg sized tumor or cyst in my chest cavity – nothing to do with the accident.  They referred me, one by one, to neurologists, a cardiac surgeon and finally to Dr. Carlos.  I was mentally traumatized by my first car accident in the USA with all the insurance shenanigans, the ludicrous medical bills and then the unexpected tumor/cyst.  The cardiac surgeon said that they normally surgically removed cysts of that size but they would have to deflate a lung to do so and would not recommend it.

By the time I got to Dr. Carlos, I was a mess, mentally and physically.  He thoroughly reassured me that it was a congenital cyst, not cancerous, and best just to keep an eye on it.  Over the years, I visited him and he always made me feel like a Princess.  Last year, I went for a routine scan and check.  To everyone’s surprise the cyst had shrunk down to the size of a raisin.  Hurrah! It was a lovely celebratory doctor’s appointment and I thanked him profusely.  I had another routine scan arranged for February 2020.  It was before quarantine but I cancelled it because I can physically feel when the cyst gets larger.  The staff members at his office were delightful as always and reassured me that I could make an appointment at any time.  But now I can’t.

Few of us know people who have died from Covid-19 or its complications but now I do.  He was very special to me and to all his other adoring patients.  I can still hear his voice – he sounded exactly like the Puss in Boots from the film Shrek.  I have been very careful this year because I am surrounded by immunosuppressed neighbors and friends.  On a personal note, I was unsure if my lung history made me at higher risk.  Would my cyst expand if attacked by the corona virus?  I know we hate this strange time but we have the vaccines now and it will be a relatively short time until life becomes safer.  Please, please wear a mask.  Assume that everyone could be exposed to the virus.  Think about it as a wartime scenario.  Unemployment, poverty and social chaos are with us but we will be stronger.  Just be safe and unselfish for a few months more.

Dr. Carlos Araujo-Preza, you epitomized what makes America a good place.  I will never forget you.  Thank you for the gift of compassion.