SALT LAKE CITY — I traveled back home to Massachusetts in November 2019. I saw my grandmother for the first time in almost two years. She lives in a nursing home in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She hugged me. Kissed me on the cheek. She invited me to dinner with her three friends — “the golden girls,” she called them. They ate their meals. I sipped a muddy cup of instant decaf coffee. They asked about my life, my girlfriend, my friends, what it’s like to work in the media.
Five months later, my aunt sent me a text. My grandma had tested positive for the coronavirus. She was being isolated in her room. No outside contact. She was alive. But no one could see her. Details about the nursing home’s protocols were scarce. This was April. We didn’t know much then about the virus — how it spreads, where it goes, who is most vulnerable.
The news nearly broke me. We had suffered earthquakes here in Utah. A global pandemic had struck the world. Now, my grandma, someone who helped raise me, had a deadly disease that has killed hundreds of thousands and infected millions.
I called her. She downplayed it the first time. She said she was sick. Weak. No cough, no breathing problems. Just weak.
How did you get it?
The golden girls, she said.
Her two best friends contracted the virus, too. One of them had worse symptoms than my grandma, she told me. One was really bad. One was getting better. My grandma was weak.
Terror shot through me. A nursing home. Three women — one of whom is my grandma — all contracted the virus. They’re stuck inside the facility. Reports had shuffled in at the time about the virus’ devastating impacts on nursing homes. Not to mention, a soldiers homein the same town of Holyoke had made national news after 76 people died from COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, at least 55,000 residents and workers at nursing homes died from the coronavirus or in other long-term care facilities, according to The New York Times. The virus has infected 296,000 at 14,000 facilities. In Massachusetts, 63% of the deaths have been linked to nursing homes, according to theTimes. Those in long-term care facilities are at high risk, after all. It can be fatal for those 60 and older with underlying conditions.
My grandma is 87. She made it through the Great Depression, World War II, the social unrest of the 1960s, 9/11, Y2K. But she has had heart problems in the past. She had suffered a stroke. And now she had COVID-19. She lives in a nursing home facility. She easily could have been one of that 55,000.
I had always wondered what it would have been like to live during the time of the Spanish flu. Hearing about how someone you knew either died or contracted the flu. I wondered what it would be like for my world. Who would get the virus? Would I be one of the million who suffered? Would it be my family? My best friend? My cousins?
And just like that — considerations became reality. My grandmother was trapped in one of the most dire circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic so far. Trapped in a nursing home. Can’t leave. Can’t really stay.
At the time, my aunt told me she recommended hydroxychloroquine to the nurses there. It was about the time that President Donald Trump started touting the drug for use. The nurses hadn’t heard of it, my aunt said.
Time passed. I called my grandmother a few times. No answer. Once again, fear grew within me. She picked up once and told me it was hard for her to talk. Her scratchy voice proved the point.
She was weak, she said. Weak. So weak. Can’t move. Tired. Always in bed, can’t get out. So weak.
You don’t really know how you’re going to respond to tragedy until it happens to you. Anyone around me can attest that my paranoia about the virus shifted greatly. Masks during outside walks. Three masks in the car. Hand sanitizers galore. Lysol wipes on my coffee cups. Every twitch or shake could be a symptom. I became alert and ready. If this could happen to my grandma — one of the strongest women I know — it can happen to anyone. It can happen to me. It can happen to you.
Three weeks later, I called her. My perky grandmother answered. She sounded so much better. All of a sudden, she sounded normal. She told me she had tested negative twice. The coronavirus had left her system.
Her two friends? Cured. Totally fine. They all survived it.
The nursing home? No one else sick.
That was three months ago. Now, my grandma can spend 20 minutes outside “like it’s prison,” she said. She stays in her room otherwise.
She’s cured, for now. As far as we know, right?
I told her on a recent call how happy I am that she survived. How happy it was to hear her voice again. How proud it makes me to say my grandmother — born in 1932, survivor of the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and so many other national tragedies and losses — survived the most recent COVID-19.
But the fear of the virus lingers.
“I hope I have your genes,” I said.
She chuckled. “Let’s hope you got something from me.”