Why masks should be here to stay….. (A Personal Story)

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.

Picture of my grandfather: Rao Pamganamamula (age 69 at the time) during my first year at UT Austin. We used to walk for 6-8 miles along Lady Bird Lake every Saturday.

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.

Picture of my grandfather and myself in London a couple of years ago.

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)!

49 Comments

    1. Donna

      So sorry for your loss. My friends and family are medical professionals and this has taken a huge toll on them as well. I agree with everything you said – well written. You and your family are in my thoughts.

  1. Gene

    @ Teja — I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for reminding people that this pandemic is not over, especially for the immunocompromised. Mask fatigue is real, but we should all be considerate of others’ medical conditions.

  2. chris

    Somehow, we as a society, have become extremely self centered. People refuses to do the tiniest things to keep each other safe.

    I am sorry for your loss. I have been, and will keep using respirators in indoor public spaces.

  3. AMJ

    I am very sorry for your loss. I very much agree that mask wearing should continue, especially as we are entering another surge, not only for our own protection, but also for the protection of the most medically vulnerable in our society. So many people have lost compassion and empathy for others. It baffles me.

  4. Jeanne Wudrick

    Thank you for this very helpful post. Here in Canada the covid 19 problem is hushed up to the place where it is no longer reported on the news. Few people wear masks. And like your area, people are still dying in large numbers. I am heeding your advice to wear a mask in public places, no matter what others think.

    1. Thanks Jeanne. Here in the U.S we are in the midst of another surge (surges which appear to be happening every 6 months) and yet the health authorities and people have refused to wear masks. So far the hospitalizations haven’t been going up as sharply so one hopes there’s enough immunity within the community. It’s truly an experiment of herd immunity being conducted right now lol.

  5. CHRIS

    I’m sorry for your loss but let me ask you how you’d feel about banning peanuts from society? How about bees? Guns? Pools? Cars? Look, people can be susceptible to and die from many things. It’s a proven fact that just being alive is 100 percent fatal. I’ll go easy on you but you know that this is going to start things. While I sympathize with your loss, your desire to drastically change society and my freedoms are where I draw the line. Sorry and I hope you and your family find peace.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Regarding your other comment: no one is asking anyone to eliminate anything or drastically alter their behavior. Wearing a mask to cover yourself during a surge is like driving at the speed limit. If everyone drove like how they wanted, living in a society wouldn’t be all that feasible. Obviously there are times when people need to take masks off (to eat and drink). But people have everything to gain and nothing to lose by wearing it everywhere else. Trying to force pre-pandemic normality in the name of freedom, really does no one any good.

    2. al

      Completely agree. If they’d kept the same sort of stats on the seasonal flu as they did covid we’d surely find that millions of deaths could just as easily be related to the seasonal flu. But we don’t. And we’ve NEVER done that. Because we just accepted that flu is just one of the innumerable things that could nudge the serious risk groups over the edge. That’s life (death). And saying that doesn’t minimize any death, but it does just show pre-2020 we most all had that perspective. But for some reason covid became the ONE reason NOBODY should die. Politics and a 24/7 media intent on hyping this pandemic out of all proportion has completely warped some of our perspectives on this. As you say, people die for countless reasons. Why has covid become the one unacceptable reason? Because masks could stop it? Please. Every data we have clearly shows mask mandates have no correlation with the reduction of cases/deaths. And lastly, please stop telling everyone who doesn’t wear a mask in public that they hate others. Did YOU wear a mask pre 2020 anywhere? Yet I can guarantee the seasonal flu has played the part of millions of deaths. But I would never accuse you or anyone else of “not caring about anyone else”. Because that would be wrong.

      1. The death rate of covid is much higher than the flu (that’s been proven time and again). COVID is several fold more infectious. No one is asking anyone to stop their life or stop indoor events before vaccines. Just wear a mask while doing it, especially in times of a surge.

        I have worn a mask before 2020 in oncology clinics and many cancer patients already did at the time. We were not dealing with a virus that was as infectious or one that had this wide range of symptoms at the time so society as a whole wasn’t asked to mask up.

        1. kiki

          Sorry for your loss.
          But maybe you should look more into other reasons!
          Remember, flu dissapeared in 2020! Have you wonder
          why? Also, you did not mention if your Granpa was vaccinated.
          I have never worn a mask, had Covid (aka a type of flu) It all depends
          on the person health at the time of contracting the virus.
          A person can die just by getting a regular cold.

  6. Hal

    Sorry to hear your loss and I believe anyone that is concerned can take their protective measures. I also live in Dallas (HP), but everyone I’ve known has gotten covid and for all of them it’s been mild. I’ve had it twice 2020 and 2021, but I would never ask others to wear a mask. They can decide for themselves. As much as Abbott annoys me on other issues, this is one Texas has gotten right and Clay Jenkins has been totally power hungry on.

    1. AMJ

      I don’t understand why one would subject themselves to an illness multiple times over, but be so “inconvenienced” by a mask? Besides being concerned about the well being of our most medically vulnerable in our society, I personally don’t have the luxury of time to be sick three times in a year mild or not (and I hope that you are staying home while infectious as recommended…if not, that’s a whole other level of being inconsiderate). I also find it ironic how those who scream “masks don’t work!” seem to be the ones getting infected. The vast majority of people I know who have had Covid seem to be able to connect the dots about where they contracted it and it seems to be when they have had a masking lapse. Masks work when used correctly and consistently.

  7. DaninMCI

    I’m sorry for your loss. My father has cancer and is elderly. He and my mother have not been out in public except for chemo treatments and two surgeries since February of 2020. They have had 6 booster shots and he will likely die from something besides cancer due to his immune status. I have not been able to really see him in person except through a door or window for over 2 years. They don’t order restaurant food in or venture out except for short walks outside away from others. Covid-19 has been devastating for many alive and dead. I myself have had Covid twice despite having been vaccinated and boosted. The first time I had to go into the hospital with blood clots. I only share all that so I don’t sound casual about this issue. The genie is out of the bottle. The longer time goes on the fewer people are going to wear masks to protect others. Those that are sick or need higher protection than we have reached at this endemic stage will need to protect themselves with N-95 or higher-level PPE and also not venture out casually. A vacation flight, trip to Disney, etc. even a flight for business are not necessary and should be avoided at all costs.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. The cat may be out of the bag, but it should not be unsafe for people who are immunocompromised to go to the doctor’s office or grocery store. Yes taking plane rides is risky, but the response regarding masks seems to trickle down to every aspect of society once that rule was lifted.

      I feel for you and your family. Not seeing them is really something else and my aunt (my grandfather’s daughter) had a similar problem throughout the pandemic. And now that he is gone, it’s likely tougher on her because she lives in the “what if I had gone…” thoughts.

      I truly hope you get to visit your parents soon.

  8. KJ

    Masks don’t stop viruses, it’s basic #science. They stop bacteria & have no effect on COVID or any other type of virus and make things worse. That being said, I’m sorry for your loss

  9. Kate

    I’m very sorry for your loss. I’m appalled at how selfish people can be in refusing to wear masks and how stubbornly in denial most people in the country are regarding the high rates of Covid currently. I applaud your writing of this article, particularly in a forum where so many young healthy people are celebrating not wearing masks.

  10. SMR

    My heart breaks for anyone who has lost family or friends. This however is no reason to start lobbying to lose freedoms. Masks should be voluntary. “I want the government to have more control over me” should say no one. If you are immune compromised , it is up to you to take the necessary precautions , society and the will to live freely is not to blame for deaths caused by this disease.

    1. Masks work and as you can see the term “voluntary” means that it’s ok for people to be sick and cough on other people’s faces. I don’t think that would’ve been ok even before this pandemic. Society has unfortunately become polarized on this topic for some odd reason. It was never ok for one person to cough or sneeze on someone else knowingly. Wearing a mask to prevent this seems not only logical but practical with highly communicable viruses.

  11. John L

    I’m sorry for your loss, but I have no intention on putting on my mask anytime soon. In fact, I’d like to burn mine but I think it’s thrown away now.

    Society has been turned upside down during the mask mandate era – and I hope we never return to it again. 10s of millions lost their jobs, and kids all around the world got screwed over with a lousy education because the world governments politicized this matter.

    No – we’re not in it together. If one is too sick to travel, stay home.

  12. Terence Fitzgerald

    Death is something we are all going to experience, but it’s what we do while being alive that truly matters. I’m sorry about your loss, but I lost my father as well to another disease but am not asking people to change their life because of it. I do not agree with you at all about wearing masks forever. There is no proof that masks even work. It’s like putting a chain-link fence around your house and expecting it to keep out mosquitoes. When you wear a mask, can you still smell food cooking? Of course, you can – because small particles are not stopped by a mask – so in the same way Covid virus is not stopped by the mask. And how stupid has society become where we can take off a mask while we eat at a restaurant but must wear one to walk into a restaurant. Quit being a sheep and following everything someone in a corrupt government tell you to do. My daughter has not been able to experience school the way it should be for normal children, we have not been able to experience life the way we should be – all because the government locks people down to the point of no longer living a real life and destroying businesses and freedoms. Sorry, but masks are a big problem and do not need to be mandated on anyone.

  13. Stephanie

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Ignore the insensitive comments. If only this world could be full of people who actually care about someone other than themselves, it would be a better place. I still wear my mask in public places and wish others would too. Also, my mom has horrific asthma so even vaccinated, she’s susceptible to covid. Some people only understand your views once someone they know and love passes away. Sadly, it shouldn’t take that to have compassion. Sorry again.

    1. Thanks Stephanie and I also appreciate anyone that continues to wear masks (esp in a surge). I know that nothing I say will change people’s minds on the topic. However, I just wanted to make a case for the immunocompromised who are overshadowed by the anti-vaxxers in the COVID death narrative.

  14. Scott Poole

    Masks do not prevent the spread of viruses. This has been known for many years. The original claim supporting masks for Covid-19 were prior to finding out it was an airborne virus. In the beginning it was thought it had to be spread by droplets. A well fitted N95 mask can stop viruses, but most people wearing them do not have them fitted well at all. Even the article you link to above (or below, not sure where this will show up) starts out noting that N95 masks are effective.

    Surgical masks can stop the spread of droplets if a person is symptomatic, but it is much more beneficial to require symptomatic people to stay home. (as someone that lives alone, I know this is not always possible – so limit contact and wear a mask in this case).

    1. “Surgical masks can stop the spread of droplets if a person is symptomatic, but it is much more beneficial to require symptomatic people to stay home”. I completely agree, but how many people are actually staying home anymore hence the need for masks in indoor spaces where you don’t eat or drink. I’m not talking about masks as a way to protect yourself from others (you need N95 for that after a certain extent), but more of as a way to protect others from yourself.

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