For abuela Cira Artidiello, 1930-2020.
April 1, 2020
As soon as I finished my training, my supervisor hurried me to my desk and handed me a single alcohol wipe. The telephone operators sitting next to me relentlessly answered callers’ questions, and I carefully sanitized my computer, headset and phone, wishing that I had other tools at my disposal to fight this pandemic. But as a first-year medical student, my best option was putting down my stethoscope and picking this up instead. The instant I activated my phone, it rang. I steadied my microphone and saw 34 callers in the queue. “COVID-19 hotline,” I answered.
A grandma’s panicked Spanish sprang through the line. “Niño. Am I gonna die?” she asked.
I hesitated. Studying the Florida Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations along with answers to what my supervisor told me were the most common questions, namely “Should I get tested?” and “Where can I get tested?,” had not prepared me to answer the unthinkable.
On one of my computer monitors, the previous operator had left a question and answer script that would soon become never ending. I did a quick search through the script, but nothing came up.
“Niño?! … ” the caller asked impatiently.
Phones rang in sync, and I pressed my headset to my ears. “Sorry, can you repeat the question?” I asked in Spanish.
“Am I gonna die? From the COVID?”
This time, I heard the quivers in her voice. I imagined my own grandma, watching TV from her rocking chair, struggling to make sense of the constantly changing headlines. “Can you tell me more about your concerns?”
“I’m 82. I’m diabetic. I’m hypertensive. And I’ve had a valve replaced.”
Again, I thought about my grandma. I played alphabet soup with her only a few weeks ago, and now I could only see her on FaceTime. “Are you experiencing any symptoms?” I asked.
“Fever, cough, difficulty breathing?”
“…My knees hurt when I stand up.”
“Are you still going out?”
“I haven’t left the house in a week … Is that why they hurt?”
“That could be part of it. I know it’s frustrating to have to stay home, but as long as you do so, you’re going to be okay. People who leave their house are at a higher risk of getting sick.”
In the hallway beyond the floor to ceiling windows, I saw the head epidemiologist briefing my supervisor. She looked down at the floor and breathed deeply through pursed lips, vying to hold onto a sense of calm.
“So why doesn’t everyone stay home?” the caller asked.
“Some people need to care for the sick, work in grocery stores and make deliveries.”
“Are those the people that are dying from it?”
Florida’s current death toll was sixty. I read about who the first four people were. But after them, the media only reported the numbers. “It’s possible,” I replied.
“Because they didn’t stay home?”
“That’s right.” I picked up the alcohol wipe and felt some residual moisture between my fingers. Again, I passed it over anything that I might touch: the keyboard, mouse, phone. “Do you live alone?”
“How are you getting your groceries?”
“My daughter leaves food outside my door. But she won’t come in.”
“She’s protecting you.”
“Is she not coming in because I have it?”
“No, it’s not because you have it.”
“Well, how long is this gonna go on?”
“I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
“Me too,” I admitted. My supervisor hastily changed the TV to local evening news. The state’s death toll had climbed to seventy one, and governor Ron DeSantis was issuing statewide stay-at-home orders. Finally, I thought. “One day this is all going to be over. And you can see your daughter like normal again. But the more we stay home and wash our hands, the better off we’re all going to be.”
“…Can I call you again?”
“Yes. Call us anytime.”
“One more thing.”
The phones blared as the number of callers in the queue ticked up to 93. I found where to raise the call volume, but it was already all the way up. “Go ahead.”
“Can I open the window?”
I looked outside. The call center’s windows faced a busy avenue that cut through my medical school campus in the center of Miami. Without the usual barrage of health care providers, students, patients and their families, I saw palm trees there for the first time, their green leaves swaying against a cloudless blue sky.
“Yes, please open the window,” I said.
“I like fresh air.”
Author’s note: Patient’s age and details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Image credit: Headset (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Isaril