The Washington Post
Tennessee’s covid-19 surge cost me a hospital bed
“How soon can you get here?” Twenty-five minutes after my doctor asked me that question, she was poking at the golf ball-size lump that had appeared on the front of my throat overnight.
This was Jan. 3, the start of an eight-month medical mystery. On Sept. 10, I was supposed to have the surgery that would finally let me breathe. Instead, a week before my doctors were scheduled to operate, my surgery was canceled because Tennessee’s hospitals have been overwhelmed by covid-19 patients.
I’m scared. I’m vaccinated, but a breakthrough case would be dangerous for me. I’m bone-deep disappointed. But mostly, I am angry. I did everything I was asked to do to avoid catching or spreading covid-19. I wanted to do my part to end this crisis. Now, I wonder: Are there any circumstances under which my neighbors would do the same to keep me safe?
It’s terrifying to experience a medical emergency during a pandemic.
That first lump made it impossible for me to breathe when I bent over. When I cleaned out the litter box or picked up a toy or put my laundry in the dryer, I held my breath. If I didn’t, the lump in my throat would push against my windpipe and cut off my air. Psychologically, it was just easier to choose not to breathe than it was to be unable to breathe.
Things improved after my first surgery in February, but by the end of May, I felt like I was having trouble breathing again. Not in the same exact way as before — like the difference between being strangled and being smothered.
I went to another surgeon, but he said he didn’t want to operate without a clear diagnosis, because he didn’t want to crack my chest open without knowing what he was getting into or if he might be making it worse. As long as I was able to breathe, he’d hold off. It turns out that “able to breathe” is a more subjective standard than you might think.
And the breathlessness wasn’t even the worst part. I was also oozing a kind of white, chalky mess out of my neck.
It took until August for a doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to come up with a definitive diagnosis: granulomatous disease from histoplasmosis. In laymen’s terms, my immune system is torturing me because it went haywire in reaction to a fungus. Surgery promised to immediately improve my ability to breathe, and to heal my neck.
I asked if there was a chance I could be bumped for covid-19 patients. She said yes, but that my surgery would be among the last taken off the calendar, due to the threat to my life.
And yet here I am. Tennessee is a state where, as Hank Williams Jr. put it, “We say grace and we say ma’am. If you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.” Given that creed, if there’s any place where everyone should be helping their fellow Americans in a time of crisis, it should be here.
But instead, our hospitals are full of people who are very sick and dying because they couldn’t be bothered to get one of three safe and effective vaccines — or at the very least stay home as much as possible and wear masks when they had to go out. They wouldn’t do their civic duty, but they get access to hospitals in front of those of us who did.
Intellectually, I know all the downsides to letting hospitals decide what patients they will and won’t take. I grew up through the AIDS crisis, and I witnessed the devastating evil of discriminating against patients with a particular illness. And I don’t want doctors to be deciding anyone is worthy of less care just because they have made some foolish decisions. I have and will make foolish decisions myself.
But I’m still so very angry that people who put their feelings before others’ well-being get to be first in the hospitals.
My surgery is rescheduled for early October. I can predict that in that time, I will find myself struggling to breathe. I may even start to ooze pus from new places. It’s so much harder to bear the wait knowing I’ve already sacrificed so much to try to make things safer for everyone — including the person who took my spot in the hospital in September and the person who could take it again in October.
The people who arrogantly claim that their choices not to be vaccinated and take precautions against covid-19 have no effect on anyone else need to know that isn’t true. I’m one of the people they’re hurting. What will it take to make them stop?