Hugh Madden: What I learned about social distancing in a hospital waiting room

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“See you soon,” I said as I clasped his hand and mustered all the confidence I had in me to smile at him. My dad was heading into surgery for heart valve replacement and I was heading out to the waiting room. It should be just a few hours and he’d be out.

I walked to the waiting room and looked for the best spot to sit and wait. I had my book with me, a look at the Yankees in the days of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter, and snacks to make the wait more bearable. Surrounded by family, I read and snacked and made nervous jokes. But in reality, I was just distracting myself from the awful thought that a doctor would appear with a look on his face that bad news needed to be delivered.

Thankfully, the surgeon came out and gave us good news. The surgery went perfectly and the heart valves that were replaced showed evidence that the surgery was needed and necessary. We would just have to wait until morning to see him. But, the next morning brought seizures and a two-week wait until he woke up.

The next two weeks were spent waiting and watching a fight happen inside my dad’s body that I couldn’t see but could monitor with information on screens. As a layperson, I used his blood pressure, oxygen level and other measurements to make my best estimate of how he was doing. But I relied on information from the experts – the team of doctors and nurses caring for him. 

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The most vivid memory I have from those two weeks was the time spent in the waiting room the day of his seizures. The chairs were not the most comfortable, but that seemed almost fitting as I didn’t want a false sense of comfort in that moment. A buzz from the vending machines kept the silence from overwhelming me as I waited for other members of my family to arrive. My family made their way to the hospital and we waited – isolated from the room my dad was in and from the rest of the world that went on outside the waiting room windows.

The social distancing and lack of control over our fate from COVID-19 feels a lot like that waiting room. Only this time, each of us is alone in our own mental waiting room and everyone we know and love is on the other side of the door. All we can do is wait and hope they fight with all they got if they have the disease. 

For some of us, having a loved one sick in the hospital brings immediate concern about the struggle to either be there and be with our loved one or go to work so bills can be paid or discipline for missed time won’t occur. With COVID-19, many people face the dual fear of contracting the disease and a loss of pay amidst piling bills. 

One of the best moments during the two weeks waiting for my dad to wake up was an impromptu dinner with another family facing the same circumstance. For days, we had sat together hoping for the best and saying silent prayers for each other when a doctor asked to see the other family. 

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But one night, a neighbor sent more than enough food for us and we invited the other family to break bread. This dinner included laughing, warm smiles and a brief moment of solace in the middle of a storm. Today, I hear stories of neighbors caring for one another, people applauding hospital workers from balconies and watching the creativity of other people on the internet help bring that same solace on a global scale. I hope when the history of this pandemic is written, those stories don’t get lost.

The same way I spent my time next to my dad’s bed checking for signs of how things were going, I find myself doing the same now. I check the numbers out of Italy to see if they are getting better and evidence of whether or not those numbers predict our future. I watch numbers in Michigan and hope and pray we don’t run out of beds, ventilators and needed supplies. Any evidence that helps predict the future is calming no matter how good or bad it is. 

Of course, I listen to experts who have studied epidemiology, zoonotics and public health. This is where I get my daily dose of reality and act accordingly. When a doctor told me to talk to my dad because he could hear what was happening and it would help him get better, I did it. Now, I practice social distancing for both my health and to do my part to make things better. 

Ultimately, my dad woke up and we began the slow recovery that would give him 18 months of quality life that we didn’t expect him to get that first day. His recovery included speech and physical therapy, hard days and glorious moments. My journey included a renewed love for my dad, an appreciation for the health care workers who work under enormous pressure day after day, and an understanding that friends and family can be life sustaining in a crisis. 

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The next weeks and months will be scary for all of us. We will sit in fear of the unknown, seek answers as to how and why this happened and hope against hope that we are spared from getting bad news about our loved ones. But the next weeks and months will also be a time to measure our own resolve – to both make it through the worst of the crisis but also to come together as a nation and mankind to identify and fix the gaps in both our economy and health care system that are being exposed by the virus.

I was in the room when my dad woke from his coma. He started to stir and when he opened his eyes, I was there with a firm hand on his chest and gentle yet truthful words about his condition. Love, truth and grace is how my family got my dad from a coma to a return home. For all of us now, those same qualities – the ability to demand and tell the truth, grace for each other as we weather this storm and love for each other – along with a daily reminder of our shared humanity will be the most important thing most of us can do. 

We may be apart as we listen to the experts and practice social distancing. But, in this moment, we are more connected and in-it-together than we have been in a long time.