Originally published in Poetinis and The Greenleaf Review in May 2020.
The ear-piercing ding of FaceTime blares into my AirPods. Usually, the thought of video chatting makes me nauseous, but I haven’t seen Rickey Ortiz in two weeks, despite us having been in the same class before, well, all this. Seated in front of a painting of the Madonna with the sunlight gleaming in, Ortiz smiles into the camera as he greets me. We both laugh at the awkwardness of the situation. After a long week of online classes, Ortiz sighs and tells me he’s ready to relax, having just spent days working on his senior project proposal.
Small talk can only last so long as the elephant in the virtual room threatens to stomp on us. Ortiz informs me he is currently staying with his grandparents in Seal Beach and jokes anxiously that he’s worried that someone will notice his grandmother’s wall décor in the background during Zoom classes. His blue shirt creases as he looks off to the side. After a pause, he explains he will most likely be staying with his grandparents for several weeks because his dad is a firefighter and his sister is an emergency room nurse, thus his household is at risk for contracting COVID-19.
Ortiz is only 20-years-old, but he has Muscular Dystrophy, a rare group of diseases that affect the muscles and render him immunocompromised. I ask him the obvious, but necessary, question: “Are you scared?”
Ortiz falls quiet for a moment and then says, assertively, that while being a higher risk than other people does make him worried, he is more concerned about his father and sister.
His sister is a young, bubbly, newlywed, who works in a hospital in the Whittier area. She has been fortunate enough to have access to masks and goggles, but there is no guarantee she won’t catch the virus or unknowingly pass it to members of the Ortiz household. Ortiz insists he is trying to remain positive, but says he is struggling as it feels like the state of the world is regressing and his life had changed significantly almost overnight.
Ortiz, on week three of his social distancing when we speak, shakes his head over the videos of people partying in Florida.
“It was dumb…really ignorant and naïve to do,” he says. His frustration continues as he explains that even when this pandemic ends, it won’t end for him. Ortiz predicts he will continue to socially isolate, in another city away from his immediate family, for at least three weeks after the Stay At Home order is lifted. He cannot afford to take any risks. Viruses don’t have clear-cut start and end dates.
“It sucks, but you know that’s life,” Ortiz says, his lips tight.
Zeneyda Flores, a quiet-but-fierce 21-year-old student at Whittier College, has Lupus, a common systemic autoimmune disease. An aspiring art therapist, Flores thanks social distancing for giving her more time to paint and catch up on movies. Her mom, who works as a housemaid, is home now due to the pandemic and her sister, a behavioral therapist, is working from home.
Flores wishes things were back to normal so she could “… go to Target, Trader Joe’s, or even shopping.”
Flores believes everyone should be taking care of themselves to protect others. Unable to even go for a walk without wearing a mask, Flores says she worries about her mother. “I know my mom feels stress[ed] about me having a pre-existing condition, but I just tell her I’m okay and not to worry about me,” she says, adding that stress can weaken the immune system.
Unfortunately, Plaquenil, a medication used by Flores and others to treat diseases such as Lupus, has been back ordered by the manufacturer due to the President testing it (likely prematurely) as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Flores currently has a two-month supply but acknowledges she will have to call her Rheumatologist to see what steps she will have to take if she runs out.
Connie Morales, a graduating senior at Whittier College, hasn’t left her house since March 10th. Morales has Mitochondrial Disorder, a rare genetic condition that affects everyone differently. For the 23-year-old the disorder means the mitochondria of her cells do not produce energy correctly, leaving her body, including her immune system, weaker than the average person’s. Morales, who lives alone, is grateful for the home-health care nurses who are taking extra precautions to protect her, themselves, and their families.
With a hint of sass, Morales declares “define normal” but wonders if things will ever be the same for herself or anyone after the COVID-19 pandemic because “…we all might have settled into a different way of life by the time this [is] over.” Morales believes something positive will blossom from this situation, but she currently is avoiding the news to keep her stress low. She already feels mentally and emotionally drained, but Morales reminds herself that her plans and goals are still the same, they have only been delayed.
Morales is concerned about contracting the virus because she fears her body won’t be able to fight it, leaving her “…hospitalized without any of my loved ones or the people I trust around me.”
This is a fear, unfortunately, coming true for many people as hospitals are limiting and even barring visitors in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. Morales is concerned about contracting the virus…leaving her “…hospitalized without any of my loved ones or the people I trust around me.”
Sitting at the wooden kitchen table she helped her dad sand and stain, Aleigha VanWinkle intently works on a Trolls puzzle. The 18-year-old credits the puzzle for reducing her stress, and eagerly tells me she has a Backyardigans puzzle in her bedroom that she loves too.
Aleigha is my younger sister, who lives with Mitochondrial Disorder and Muscular Dystrophy. Snarky, per usual, she tells me she has, “…survived worse” than COVID-19. Despite her declaration, my family is taking precautions through social distancing, constantly cleaning, and carefully monitoring Aleigha’s health.
COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs and airway. In the summer of 2017, Aleigha went into septic shock after contracting pneumonia and spent weeks in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit fighting for her life. Almost three years later, her body still hasn’t recovered fully.
“Social distancing is an Autistic person’s dream.”
For Aleigha, life has not changed much since sheltering in place three weeks ago, as she typically spends most of her time at home working on art. A recent high school graduate, Aleigha is taking a year off school before pursuing a graphic design degree at a local community college in Temecula, California. Huffing, she tells me she feels frustrated that people are violating the Stay At Home order because, “they aren’t following rules, and rules are in place for a reason.”
The green from her Mike Wazowski pajama pants glimmer as she stands to grab her coloring book. Hesitantly, she tells me she is most upset about plans that have been changed due to this virus — she had been looking forward to going to Universal Studios to ride the new Secret Life of Pets attraction. She thinks that when the Stay At Home order is lifted, either no one will go out because they will be scared or too many people will go out. Aleigha, who struggles with sensory overload, laughs as she tells me, “Social distancing is an Autistic person’s dream.”
Her comment makes me laugh, too, but I can’t help worrying about her health, both physically and mentally. Our lives will continue to change as my mother, a Registered Nurse, will be traveling to Northern California to help at the Stanford hospitals. She will not return home for several weeks even after she’s done there as she cannot risk infecting Aleigha. In addition, my grandfather, who lives in Indiana, is currently hospitalized with acute renal failure and cannot have any visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aleigha asks me how my article is going. Such a simple question, but I struggle to answer. The world is frozen and all I can do is write. My mind goes back to something Connie Morales told me:
“I’ve learned over many years that at the end of the day all you can do is try your best to maintain and protect your health, the rest is up to the universe.”