I’ve been quiet for the past few months because I’ve just not been in the mood to write on this blog. While I mentioned that I had gotten COVID in the last post and that it seemed like my family was making a swift recovery, things took a tragic and devastating turn soon after my post.
Just about three months ago (in Dallas, TX), my grandfather passed away due to COVID pneumonia. Before I elaborate on what happened and his vaccination status etc, I should point out that just because a person has a comorbity or other ailment doesn’t make it ok for them to die from COVID. My grandfather and the 6 million or so other souls could’ve easily lived a few more years if it weren’t for COVID-19. Too many Americans, Brits, Indians, Germans, and others alike have decided that the death tallies don’t mean anything and have densensitized themselves to the human toll of COVID. Part of it has to do with media coverage and of course politics. If the atrocities COVID has wreaked on the bodies of patients inside hospitals were covered like the war crimes in Ukraine committed by Russia, I’m not sure people would be so ready to cast aside these figures.
Just about a month ago, a federal judge in Florida shot down the federal mask mandate on public transportation, which of course includes airplanes.While many of you have or are jumping for joy, I would like to remind everyone that there are still around 300+ people dying from COVID-19 each day in this country and that the infection rates in certain parts are still far higher than they should be for masks to be eliminated. Heck the peak we are experiencing now is already above the wave we experienced with the Delta variant last summer. And there are still vast spaths of the country that have never been vaccinated. Combine these pockets with the immunocompromised and you have the potential for many more fatalities.
Now before you get on me about lock downs, living with the virus, and people wearing masks poorly sort of arguments, I would like to say that no one that is immunocompromised is asking you to stop your life for their sake. Risk is always a personal assessment when it comes to any endeavor. However just because there is risk doesn’t make it ok to compound it with more risk. What people do outside public spaces shall always remain their perogative, however this doesn’t justify the average person walking around without a mask at the supermarket during a surge. If you are in the camp that doesn’t believe in the efficacy of masks, nothing I say will change your mind so save yourself the time and skip reading this.
Much of the human toll throughout this Omicron wave were immunocompromised people much like my grandfather, who through no fault of their own are more susceptible to the virus. This narrative is often forgotten or neglected because of the coverage of anti-vaxxers dying from COVID.
And with that I will relay the story of how my grandfather passed away. I have to say that this took me months to find the courage to write, so take it easy on me if I gloss over some of the detail. If I seem detached it’s probably because I’m just trying to keep it together to finish this article. My grandfather was very near and dear to me. He has lived with me for the past 15 years of my life and taught me almost everything I know about almost everything.
During December of last year everyone in my household got COVID. We didn’t know where we got it from or who gave it to us, but we did. While we weren’t too rattled by the symptoms we experienced, we were quivering in our boots about how it would affect my grandfather.
Some background: my grandfather was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) in 2019 and had to go through aggressive chemotherapy and radiation to get the cancer to go into remission. If you are familiar with how cancer works, remission doesn’t necessarily mean that the cancer is completely gone, but rather that it is slowly subsiding and thankfully not multiplying. In order to keep the cancer at bay, patients have to undergo an infusion of Rituxan every so often in order to ensure that the tumors do not grow back. For the record he had received all three doses of Moderna and so was fully vaccinated.
Anyway, a day after we confirmed that my grandfather was positive for COVID-19, we scheduled him for IV monoclonal antibodies. Everything went without a hitch and he was soon home seemingly recovering quickly from COVID. Roll forward three weeks and he suddenly started saying that he was “weaker” than normal and started having some nausea. Seeing that most of his blood work appeared normal for a cancer patient, we decided to monitor the situation closely. Two days later my grandfather became increasingly weak and started showing signs of a fever. He also had no appetite due to the nausea and started becoming malnourished. As a result, we took him in for IV fluids and an x-ray, while we frantically searched for a hospital bed. At the time there were no hospital beds anywhere in the DFW area and so we couldn’t just admit him for observation. In fact, patients worse than him were sent back home with oxygen tanks due to lack of space at local hospitals.
After the IV fluids, my grandfather appeared better and so we waited on for the x-ray results. The following day we got the x-ray results back which indicated signs of pneumonia in his left lung. Unfortunately, my grandfather was feeling weaker that day and didn’t want to go to the ER. I patiently waited all day to see if anyone we knew could come back with an available hospital bed. Nothing was available. To add to the horror, my grandfather’s O2 stats also started going down slowly and a dry cough had returned. Not liking where this was headed, I called my grandfather’s oncologist and after several tries I was able to reach him. The oncologist said that there might be a bed in the cancer ward of the hospital available for my grandfather. And he didn’t think admitting him would be a huge issue given that the COVID infection was seemingly a month ago. Seeing this as my only opportunity to find him a bed, I took him to the clinic for a visit with his oncologist.
After a long and grueling 5 hours full of paperwork, more tests, and waiting to see the doctor, we were finally given the green light to head up to a hospital room. By this point my grandfather was so exhausted that he had fallen asleep on the couch in the hospital waiting area. With some help I was able to get him in a wheelchair and take him to his room.
After helping the nurse to get him settled, I was instructed to either stay with him throughout his stay or leave that very night. Since this was at the peak of yet another wave, the hospital had a zero tolerance policy for guests that come and go. The nurses so desperately wanted me to stay actually given how short staffed they were (caregivers usually do a lot of a nurse’s work). However, my grandfather insisted that I go home given that I hadn’t gotten much sleep in a week and hadn’t eaten anything all day. His last words to me as I left were, “I’ll be ok, I just need some sleep.”
Things truly spiraled out of our control after that point. While he did seem to be getting better initially, things took a turn for the worse, fast. The COVID PCR test that the hospital conducted for my grandfather came back positive the day after his admission and so he was moved into isolation where no one could visit. Not even my dad (who is actually a physician). From there on, we got very little word from any of the nurses on his condition other than when additional medical intervention was needed. While he did video call us once, two days in, it was for a very brief time.
Day by day his oxygen requirements kept going up and they had to eventually place him on the ventilator. Even at this point we were hoping for a recovery given that every patient we had seen at our own clinic was seemingly recovering from an Omicron infection. The ventilator was supposed to buy his body time to recover from an infection given that he was otherwise in fairly good condition. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a reprieve for us. After being on the ventilator for a little more than two days, he seemingly had a cardiac event and his other stats also started plummeting.
It took a while, but the oncologist called us two days later to say there wasn’t much more we could do. During the phone call, he mentioned that Omicron was seemingly causing a high death rate amongst bone marrow transplant patients and lymphoma patients. In fact my grandfather was just one of five or six other cancer survivors who succumbed to the virus within that week. Sadly this was the end. After emailing multiple administrators about visitation rights, we were finally able to say a final goodbye to him and collect his belongings just before he passed away on February 8, 2022.
I related this story not so that someone feels sorry for me, but rather to make people aware of the many immunocompromised out there struggling to stay away from the virus. I’ve actually only seen this narrative covered in the news a couple of times (here and here), so I wanted to bring people’s attention to it. With most of the media attention going to the unvaccinated population, the other pockets of the population being pommeled by the virus are being neglected.
The government spends billions of our taxpayer money on cancer research, endowments, and other grants. You have to think some of that will go to waste if we continue to lose people at the rate we are due to COVID-19. While I agree that there is no full proof method of staying safe without withdrawing from society, wearing a mask indoors in crowded spaces is still common sense to protect those around you.
So when you are on airplane or bus or just shopping at your local supermarket, take some time to consider those around you. Wearing a mask might be annoying at that moment, but you may make the difference for life or death for a neighbor. More than one million people have been lost to the grips of this pandemic and society has made it far too easy to marginalize those deaths. These are grandparents, parents, siblings, and dear friends to many people. The phrase “love thy neighbor” is something America (and the world) seems to have forgotten at this moment in time.
I needed to get this off my chest before I resumed writing travel stories and articles again.
Not a day goes by that I don’t miss you Thatayya (aka grandfather in Telugu)!