Our Cry in the Dark

No one could have ever imagined the upheaval that the coronavirus outbreak has brought to the entire world or the breadth and depth of the pain and suffering it has already left in its wake.

Sadly, the list of examples seems to have no end, starting with the sheer number of lives that have been lost in the Jewish community and the nation and world. For the Orthodox community, the difficulty has not only been one of numbers, but given the close-knit nature of the community, a day has barely gone by when each individual has not learned of the passing of someone they knew personally to some degree.

As if the losses and mourning families were not enough, the fact that efforts to stem the virus’ spread have stood in the way of traditional levayos and nichum aveilim adds yet another level of tragedy. There is little doubt that picking up the pieces of the crisis (whenever that may begin in earnest) will involve working to support a large cadre of widows, widowers, and orphans who in what seemed the blink of an eye lost their mothers or fathers, husbands or wives.

The catastrophic financial crisis that the outbreak has created and its effects on countless individuals and families is a tragedy unto itself which would define the present moment if not for the grief and human loss that overwhelms it.

Sadly emblematic of this dark and unpredictable storm are the ordeals that so many patients and their families have experienced in the choking hospital systems around the New York metropolitan area. The tale is a complex one that will likely not be fully told for months or years to come — perhaps with some chapters missing permanently.

At the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health experts and hospital administrators warned that the rapid spread of the illness would likely push hospitals beyond their capacities and if left unchecked would leave huge numbers of patients without proper care. The prediction came true with the initial waves of patients, most of whom contracted the illness before the strictest social distancing guidelines were put into place.

Some patients have told tales of themselves or others left crying for water or help with other basic necessities. Nurses have told stories of working 12-hour shifts and being thrown caseloads of more than double the amount of critically ill patients they would normally be charged with at a time.

The physical pain of patients and their and their families’ anxiety have been compounded by the fact that most hospitals have banned or placed extremely strict limitations on visitors, leaving thousands to fight the illness in isolation. The phenomenon has made recovery much harder for patients bereft of emotional support and has left their loved ones in the dark as to their condition and with brewing suspicions about the quality of care patients are receiving. The bravery and self-sacrifice of doctors and nurses who are literally risking their lives to save those of others is evident from the facts of the crisis itself and only made clearer by their own testimony and that of those they have helped to recover.

At the same time, amid the permanent state of triage hospitals have been operating under for more than a month, the inability of families to monitor and advocate for their loved ones’ care has already produced a thick catalog of stories that range from heart-wrenching to infuriating.

One wife struggled daily to get updates on her husband’s condition. He was an otherwise healthy and relatively young man who had walked into the hospital to get oxygen to help him with shortness of breath. After more than a week of sketchy and sporadic reports, she got a call from a doctor. Initially glad to speak to someone who was treating her husband whom she had last been told was improving, she began the call expecting good news, but ended it in tears after having been informed that he had passed away.

In another instance, after two weeks on a respirator, a woman’s lungs gained enough strength for doctors to remove the intubation. Yet, after she was moved to a non-ICU room to slowly “wake-up” from sedation and while still on a high level of oxygen, her family began to get the feeling, based on their inquires, that their mother was receiving minimal attention from staff. In the midst of the delirium common to patients coming out of intubation, she suffered a serious fall from her bed which reversed her recovery and landed her back on a respirator in the ICU.

In these and countless other similar stories, the thick curtain hospitals have been left with little choice but to throw in the way of their operations has raised obvious questions about whether more could be done and whether hospital systems are living up to the bravery of most of their frontline staff members.

Some incidents seem to point in a pessimistic direction, like the freshly widowed woman who received a survey on the quality of care her recently deceased husband had received, addressed to his name. The pain of an almanah in such a situation is unimaginable, and it is difficult to explain how a hospital could not have the means to keep families informed of patient’s conditions, but find resources to process and even mail out paperwork to the departed.

Once the lungs of the world clear from COVID-19, there will be a great deal to take stock of and a lot of questions to answer. Some might indeed turn out better than they appear from behind the smokescreen and others will likely look worse. Presumably, government will eventually be forced to throw its hand into investigating many such issues.

In the meantime, thousands continue to suffer with worry, confusion, and in many cases loss. In a tragic way, the greatest hope is that the rising predictions that “flattening the curve” are indeed true, and with the virus’ spread receding, normalcy and transparency can bring some level of comfort.