FIRST/PERSON: How COVID concerns ate my homework and (maybe) saved my life

By Jeff Seager | | September2021

It all started with some questionable humor. My daughter, Leah, and son, Jonathan, were moving into a place that could be described generously as a vacation cottage, built on the cheap decades ago in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. It must have been a welcome retreat for folks escaping the summer heat and political chaos of nearby Washington, D.C.

Yet the place needed some work. Doors didn’t close properly. The lower rack of the dishwasher was missing most of its wheels. A knob was broken on the dryer. Stink bugs had moved into an abandoned wasp’s nest behind the outdoor electrical outlet on the back deck.

We made a list and headed for the nearest home improvement center. (They called these places “hardware stores” when I was young.) Leah and I were pondering an aisle full of electrical hardware when a seventy-something joker showed up without a mask, armed with a handful of index cards on which he had catalogued his jokes.

He struck me as lonely. I imagined that pandemic isolation had taken an emotional toll on him, and that this was his affirmative response. I recall only one of the dozen or more riddles he rattled off. They were all what the kids these days call “Dad jokes.”


“Which state is round at both ends and high in the middle?”

It’s an audible. So: not “high,” but “hi.” Ohio, of course, which he showed us on his index card.

So lame.

For this joke and others, he moved in close to show me the answer as my wise eldest child kept her distance. It soon began to feel a little like a social experiment, like we were being tested. We were masked. He was not, and he was getting a little too chummy.

“Dad,” Leah said after about five or six jokes, “I’m not comfortable with this.”

He didn’t let up and I didn’t move away soon enough.

I recognized something in him that made me listen too long to his nonsense. If you’re old enough to remember the movie “Mary Poppins,” picture the late Ed Wynn singing “I Love to Laugh.” Delightfully quirky. I saw the original theatrical release in 1964 when I was eight years old.

I washed my hands before leaving the store. Out of habit and respect, I had shaken his hand, even after noting that he’d used a handkerchief to wipe sweat from his brow. It was blistering hot outside, yet cool and refreshing in the big box store.

He should not have been sweating.

Maybe it was “flop sweat,” but it made me wonder. Was he sick? It’s a question we’ve learned to ask ourselves in this year and a half of plague.

I had let my pandemic guard down. It was Wednesday, Aug. 25.

I drove home to Charleston that day after fixing some small stuff around the house. I went to work on Thursday and then headed to Cleveland on Friday for a birthday party. I was exhausted Saturday, spent most of the afternoon napping, and on Sunday we drove home again to Charleston. No flu-like symptoms, but a bad headache and fatigue. I was tiring too easily. I could attribute some of that to all the travel. But the encounter with Ed Wynn’s doppelgänger had made me wary.

Was he sick? It’s a question we’ve learned to ask ourselves in this year-and-a-half of plague.

On that Monday, I went to work as usual and informed my boss I might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. He reminded me of our health protocols, suggested I go home immediately and make an appointment for a COVID test.

I called my doctor before I left the office and arranged a rapid test at 3:30 p.m.

I worked for a few hours from home. I’m a programmer analyst for a federal program administered by a state agency, and we worked well this way for most of the past year. I hoped for the best.

In the parking lot at the clinic, a young woman came out to check in with those of us in line. She was covered head to toe, wearing gloves and a mask, scrubs and a disposable surgical gown. This plague is no joke, however we may put all the suffering out of our minds and pretend we can go about our lives as usual. My friends, neighbors and co-workers get that. The people opposing masks in schools live in a world far different from my own.

Inside, I met with Kelley Whoolery, one of the excellent physicians’ assistants who work with Dr. Julie DeTemple, my primary care physician, at Family Health Associates of the Kanawha Valley. She swabbed my nostrils. I was surprised when a few of my symptoms caused her to suggest an electrocardiogram, or EKG, a test that measures electrical activity in the heart.

Minutes later, what she saw in the EKG was “terrible,” she said, a word seldom used by medical professionals talking to patients. She urged me to drive immediately to Charleston Area Medical Center, Memorial Division, and to show my EKG to the doctors in the emergency room.

It wasn’t all bad news.

I had tested negative for COVID.

I checked into the ER at CAMC at 4:59 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 30. The ER traffic increased dramatically after that, and a fair amount of it seemed COVID-related. Only one guy openly flaunted the masking protocols in the hours I sat waiting, but he kept his distance from people. I took some comfort in the length of my wait, knowing that triage protocols advance the sickest people first.

Still, I was nervous being around all those strangers.

By 2:08 a.m., I had a bed in the Cardiac Decision Unit, a kind of observation unit for people who show up with heart problems. The people in this windowless corridor of the hospital ask a lot of questions. They want to know about family history, how much you exercise, what you eat. The questions would be annoying if they didn’t seem genuinely interested.

It was here that I met Stacy, Kasey, Kayla, Leigh Ann, Kista, Misty, and Michaela, one at a time, as they came to stick me with needles or bring me warm blankets or record my vital signs of life. I tried to sleep after Stacy told me I was scheduled for an early morning cardiac CT scan. I didn’t know what that meant until I looked it up on WebMD.

Computerized tomography, or CT, combines radiation imaging (X-rays, in the old days) with computer software that enhances and precisely defines the recorded images. Charge Nurse Stacy Smith described it as “the gold standard” for locating the exact source of an arterial blockage in the heart.

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

By now, I knew that the EKG had pointed to that blockage as the problem. Locating it precisely was key to fixing it before it caused a heart attack, which is nothing more than a rupture in the arterial wall caused by the heart’s constant effort to push blood through something akin to a garden hose your kid brother is stepping on.

In this scenario, your kid brother represents years of accumulated crud caused by eating too much cheese, too much fatty meat, too many sweet and salty snacks — or all the above and more. Eventually, that hose can blow out like a flat tire. We suffer “myocardial infarction,” which most of us call a heart attack.

I’ve never smoked cigarettes. I hardly drink at all. I don’t have diabetes. I eat lots of fish and vegetables. I ride a bicycle about four miles to work when the weather’s nice — it’s more than six miles home, avoiding traffic and zig-zagging up the hills.

By now, I knew that the EKG had pointed to that blockage as the problem. Locating it precisely was key to fixing it before it caused a heart attack.

But stress is also a killer, and it has been a rough year or two for me. For most of the last few years, and for the first time in my life, prescription medicine regulates my blood pressure. I’m still waiting to gather family together to honor my mother’s wishes by scattering her cremated remains in a forest glen carpeted with wildflowers.

Plus, there’s a new baby in the family, Silas, and his great-grandmother would be proud to know him. I think he should be with us, too, but I just can’t risk that yet.

How long is too long to wait to bury our dead? How can I fairly balance my mother’s last wishes with my responsibility to keep us all safe from the viral boogeyman?

My heart had not given up or given out, but my heart was sad, sick, and tired.

On the morning of Aug. 31, I called Mary Ellen, my partner of many years, to explain in some detail what I hadn’t understood before. I called my daughter Leah, marveling that this came about because of the home improvement center jokester I am now calling Ed. I texted back and forth a bit with my boss. The charge on my cellphone ran down but did not die, thanks to a nurse named Misty and the phone charger she loaned me for a few hours. I met my cardiologist for the first time after the cardiac CT scan.

Dr. Sarah Jane Rinehart explained my condition and told me I was scheduled that afternoon for a procedure conducted by her colleague, Dr. Elie Gharib. He would run a catheter into my arm (or into my groin, if the artery in the arm failed) and feed it to my heart, where he’d use that tiny tunnel to send in tiny tools to break up the clotted cholesterol mess. Then, they would reinforce the wall of the damaged artery with a woven metal fabric called a stent. There were some risks, including a slim chance I’d die. But if all went well we’d be done in 10 to 20 minutes.

My heart had not given up or given out, but my heart was sad, sick, and tired.

I agreed with that plan, not knowing that seven people were in line to see Dr. Gharib before I did. At least four other doctors in the catheterization unit were just as busy on that last day of August.

The assisting nurses and technicians all looked and sounded exhausted by the time they rolled me in in on a gurney. I watched as much of the procedure as I could on television monitors only a few feet from me. After all the waiting, we were finished in no time.

The Idiot

I used to read a lot of books. For many years before computers were ubiquitous, I gathered quotes and favorite passages on index cards. I have kept many. Maybe that was another reason I saw that lonely joker as a kindred spirit.

One of those books, devoured in about five days when I was 19 or 20 years old, was “The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The title character, Prince Myshkin, has some vague claim to nobility, but isn’t taken seriously by anyone because he is prone to severe epileptic seizures. He is a little broken, like me.

His friends know nothing of epilepsy (it’s 18th century czarist Russia), and they call him “the idiot” behind his back. He is not an idiot.

“Do you know I don’t know how one can walk by a tree and not be happy at the sight of it?” he blurts out at a critical moment in the novel. “How can one talk to a man and not be happy in loving him! Oh, and it’s only that I’m not able to express it! … And what beautiful things there are at every step, that even the most hopeless man must feel to be beautiful! Look at a child! Look at God’s sunrise! Look at the grass, how it grows! Look at the eyes that gaze at you and love you!”

I’ve always been precisely that idiot, the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve with very little care for what people may think of my innocent sense of wonder. Whenever this life is taken from me, whatever else becomes of me until then, I don’t believe those moments of joy and amazement will be diminished at all in whatever consciousness remains.

“Look at the grass, how it grows! Look at the eyes that gaze at you and love you!”

I walked out the front door of CAMC Memorial Hospital on the first day of September, looking forward to months of cardiac rehab and changes in diet and exercise that I’d been planning anyway. Thanks to this heroic and yet oddly routine intervention, I did not suffer a heart attack. I’ll be just fine.

I wake early these days without an alarm, as I’ve done since I was in my mid-fifties. I listen to the awakening world, the first distant chirps of birds, the simmering and stewing cacophony of dawn’s beckoning to our West Virginia woodlands. I bring tea to Mary Ellen in bed as I’ve done almost every morning for years; she smiles as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa. My children call me to ask my advice; they never fail to tell me they love me. What more could I want in this life or in any other?

“Look at the eyes that gaze at you and love you!”

We may want to take away from this a story of new beginnings, but for me that would be a lie. I’m the same idiot today as I was yesterday, last month, last decade. I was the same idiot in my teens, copying the words of dead poets onto index cards in the same way Ed Wynn’s heir apparent now recycles old jokes.

I’d be a far bigger fool to think that nothing in me has changed, though, now that blood flows freely again through the left anterior descending artery of the muscle I call my heart. I owe a piece of my remaining life to a cohesive, cooperative, caring team of medical professionals who, in the midst of a global pandemic, did their jobs as well as ever. They did this work long before they ever met me. They’re still doing it right now, day and night.

The world may indeed be plagued with disease and hate and intolerance, but it contains no fewer miracles, no less compassion and love than ever.

When you read about the “front-line workers” we call heroes — even when we don’t pay them a living wage —I ask that you remember they have names like Kayla, quietly kind and profoundly competent; Leigh Ann, who proudly and hilariously autographed the tape that secured the intravenous line she inserted painlessly into my right wrist; and Kista, a tough, razor-sharp young mom, who still brings gifts of food and love to the neighbors who cared for her daughter while she studied and worked her way into this ruthless and strangely fulfilling job.

The lasting lesson for this idiot is that the world may indeed be plagued with disease and hate and intolerance, but it contains no fewer miracles, no less compassion and love than ever. And if we ever need it, some of that grace awaits us in our hour of need, in a windowless central corridor of a West Virginia hospital.

Jeff Seager now lives happily — without ramen and Cheez-It snack crackers — in South Charleston, WV. He assists as WestVirginiaVille’s prized copy editor and front-line feedback loop.

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

Leave a Reply