By Pamela Brunskill
Over the last week, a feeling of apprehension has swept over the country. With the coronavirus infecting thousands of Americans and cities taking drastic measures to slow the spread, citizens rush to combat this pandemic. We scramble for some sense of control, bury our fears and hope that life will soon return to normal.
The current reaction to COVID-19 reminds me of how I felt six years ago when my daughter – then 9 years old – was diagnosed with leukemia. Overnight, my world changed. For the first month, my daughter underwent induction, an intense phase designed to halt the cancer and bring on remission. Afraid of germs, my husband and I compulsively washed our hands, sanitized everything we could and self-quarantined.
As treatment continued, the hospital arranged for my husband and me to meet with a social worker. This woman acknowledged our efforts but warned us we were “doing the sprint” when leukemia was a marathon. I didn’t understand what to do differently. So, I continued to disinfect my house, watch Disney Channel with my daughter, and coach my other daughter’s soccer team.
For months, my husband and I kept up this routine. However, it became evident that we didn’t fully grasp the scope of my daughter’s two and a half years of intended treatment. Her doctors gave us digestible information based on what happened during each phase. For example, they initially didn’t tell us about prednisone and steroid rage. They didn’t tell us that someday we’d need to give her shots at home. They didn’t tell us that our daughter would lose her hair, it would come back, and then she’d lose it again. Instead, they helped us navigate each phase in context of longer-term care.
Right now, our country has suffered a traumatic diagnosis, and our worlds have changed overnight. We are in an “induction phase.” People sanitize their homes, buy in bulk and practice social distancing. National, state and county emergency orders are in effect; schools are closing indefinitely; and information about the virus can be overwhelming, confusing and fraught with uncertainty. At this point, with the number of cases anticipated to peak in the United States in late May, it is important to recognize that this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.
Several months into my daughter’s treatment, I returned to the social worker because the anxiety – of not knowing what was going to happen, if my daughter would live or die, or how successful the treatment would be – became too much. The social worker advised me that other parents didn’t get rid of that ball of fear. Rather, they got used to living with the bone-deep knowledge that life could be upended at any moment.
I stared at her in disbelief – moving forward indefinitely without being able to count on anything seemed unfathomable. And yet, at some point in the past few years, I also grew accustomed to living with uncertainty.
It’s difficult to think that measures such as quarantines and social distancing could continue through the summer, the fall or even longer if no vaccine or cure becomes available. And yet, we ought to prepare for that possibility because the impact of Covid-19 is just beginning, and the health and economic impacts will likely last for months, if not years. Maintaining pace with life as we used to know it won’t be sustainable long-term.
The coronavirus, like cancer, reminds us how precarious societal routines and structures are. Practicing social distancing and virtual communication are our new normal for the foreseeable future. They are temporary, but lace up for a marathon. You’ll get used to it.
Pamela Brunskill, of East Amherst, is a literacy coach, developer of educational resources and writer. Her website is pamelabrunskill.com.