I began my final paper. “American politics have been increasingly polarizing …” Beep. Oxygen levels: 91%. Beep. Oxygen levels: 90%.
I sat in my room attempting to engage with schoolwork and finish off the semester while next door, my dad was struggling to breathe. Worse, it was my fault: I gave my dad COVID-19.
Like many other college students, I started the semester on campus but in virtual mode. By the time my college retracted its plans to bring students back to campus, I had already signed a lease. Knowing I would be more productive among peers than at home, I spent the semester in Philadelphia instead of Chicago, where I’m from. That is, until Thanksgiving break.
Around Thanksgiving break, I had to make a choice between going home or staying on campus until the end of the semester. There were pros and cons to each.
Going home meant that I would be able to spend more time with my family, especially during a year that showed all of us that time is precious, given how quick and unforgiving sickness can be. On the other hand, it would mean the possibility of transmitting the coronavirus to my parents, who are in an age group significantly more at risk than my college peers.
In college, I got tested every week and practiced social distancing. For the whole semester, I was able to avoid getting the virus, even when living in an environment that seemed to breed it.
The week before Thanksgiving, my roommates and I took all the precautionary measures. We tested a few days before going home and then quarantined to make sure that the negative results on our tests would remain as accurate as possible before we began our journeys.
The 13-plus hour drive from the East Coast to the Midwest wasn’t really an option for me. The dangers of rest stops, hotel stops and fatigue outweighed the risks of a short, and hopefully safe, plane ride.
But as I stepped onto my flight the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I immediately wanted to leave. The plane was filled to the brim, and I found myself squeezed into an aisle seat next to a father and his kid. People were pulling their masks down to eat food they had bought in the airport right before getting on the flight. I had never felt this claustrophobic, keenly aware that I was trapped in a space that was definitely not virus-safe.
A week passed at home and it seemed as if I had made it from Philly to Chicago with no repercussions. Someone up there was looking out for me, I thought. Then at dinner, I took a bite of my mom’s home-cooked meal, which is usually more flavorful than anything I eat at college. Except this time, it didn’t taste like anything. I took another bite. Still nothing. I felt a weight on my chest.
The next day, I made an appointment at the nearest testing site, and I tested positive for the coronavirus.
While finishing up my final week of classes via Zoom, I stayed quarantined in my room with mild symptoms. My family got tested shortly after I tested positive, and to my relief, they were all negative.
A week and a half later, I was walking from my room to the bathroom when I heard my dad coughing downstairs. I texted my sister, “Has dad been coughing?”
“Yeah a lot,” she texted back, “…but he just tested again and it came back negative.”
This calmed my worries down a bit. There’s no way he would test negative twice in 10 days if he actually had the virus, right? Wrong.
Over the next few days, my dad’s coughing continued, as it became harder and harder for him to breathe. His symptoms and his test results did not match up, so he made an appointment to get a chest scan. A few hours later, he received his results. He had COVID pneumonia in his lungs.
We considered sending him to the hospital, but ultimately, we did not. My dad is grounded by his family, and my mom felt that the added stress of being away from us might hinder his recovery more than help it. So she cared for him in their room in our house, potentially sacrificing her own health.
In the days following, a home pulse oximeter measured his oxygen levels as they dropped lower and lower, fluctuating between the high 80s and low 90s. My dad, who just a week prior was able to take long walks with my mom to Lake Michigan, was bedridden. I saw him clutch the handrail of our spiraling stairs to get to his room, heaving with each step. Hearing him try to finish a full sentence was like watching someone on their last legs try to finish a marathon.
A week ago, I had been occupied with finding the mental strength to catch up on lectures, and now I faced my dad’s battle with a sickness whose consequence was potentially death. Each day I woke up in a panic, carrying the guilt that none of this would have happened if I had not decided to buy a plane ticket.
What if I just hadn’t come home? What if I had just stayed on campus? What if I had taken a different plane? I knew the pain of losing a parent would be unimaginable — made worse if caused by my own actions. I wasn’t sure if I would ever forgive myself.
Thankfully, my dad has almost made a full recovery. Two months later, it seems like the worst has passed. But my experience is a stark reminder of the consequences of the choices we are making during this time — choices we are often forced to make in place of real policy to guide us.
If I had known what would follow my stepping onto the plane, I wouldn’t have prioritized seeing my family over not risking their health by traveling in a pandemic. I wouldn’t even have gone back to campus in the first place.
For other students who will inevitably grapple with this same decision, I sincerely urge them to weigh the risk of transmitting the virus against seeing family in person. The association of COVID with death still remains a distant concept for some. It shouldn’t come down to watching a loved one take what could be their final breaths to internalize the potentially fatal consequences of our actions.
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