Good thing, it was her shift that night.
Reema was sweaty and grumpy. In full PPE (gown, N95 mask, face shield, and gloves) for the past five hours. Every time she exhaled, her glasses and face shield fogged up. She tasted stale air and burnt coffee from breathing in and out through her mask. (Note to self: schedule teeth cleaning on a weekend that you are not on call!)
She got a page. Getting a page marked ‘urgent’ was not unusual because the St. Vincent de Paul Modesto Shelter had new admissions all the time for people experiencing homelessness who were positive for Covid-19 and needed a safe place to recover. But the content of the page was unusual. A new mom and her two-week-old baby with Covid-19 were on their way to the shelter.
Hmmm, they’d not had children come in, yet alone an infant. They mostly had men, and most of them had been on the streets or in the shelter system for a long time.
What was she going to do with a baby? Her Physician Assistant training kicked in—she still had 1000 hours of clinical rotations remaining before she was fully certified, but at least she’d finished all course and some clinical work—and she started going through a checklist of what they’d need and how to get it. A pack-and-play for sure; Reema’s mind flashed back to when her own daughter was one, and she’d lie on her back in the playpen, cooing, batting at the rings and toys that her adoring dad had hung above her.
Now Gia was 17, logging long hours on the computer and complaining that her headset bothered her ears; she missed her high school friends; why couldn’t she go hang out with them in a big group at Starbucks like they used to? All in one breath, whine, whine, whine. At those times, Reema was happy to go to work even though the mask’s too-tight seal that kept her safe felt as if it was suffocating her.
As Reema pounded the hallway to greet the new mom, her mind whirred with thoughts of what else they’d need: probably some clothes and blankets, is she breastfeeding? Better have some formula in case. Haul a cot to a room that is set aside from the men’s area. Oh God: she had a baby just two weeks ago. How can I make this more comfortable for her? She’ll need towels, toiletries, and let me get some snacks together too . . . chocolate, she’ll need lots of chocolate. I think we’re ready or as ready as we can be in these circumstances.
Man, these plastic gowns are so hot! Reema licked her lips and wiped the sweat off her forehead with a gloved hand.
She met Silvia Rosalez and her baby at the taxi, helped carry a cracked infant car seat and a diaper bag covered with food splatters, and got them settled in their room. Then she listened to their story: a long time ago, a dash across the border on the back of a truck, people stacked like tortillas, one atop the other. “Not everyone made it, Miss,” Silvia said in halting breaths as Reema stroked her back. “It wasn’t easy. People died from the heat. They died from hunger. They got shot at. I was one of the lucky ones, I guess.” Reema glanced at Silvia’s smudged and wrinkled dress, then, her gaze traveled to the baby’s matted hair, wearing bright orange socks with a small heel pushing out through a big hole and wondered, how lucky were you, really?
Silvia is still talking—a C-section, discharge home, ICE agents armed with rifles knocked down her front door, dragged the baby’s father away. She hid in the closet, shaking, watching a spray of bullets hit the water-stained walls. She fled to stay with an aunt, the baby was running a 105-degree fever, take her to the ER. She has Covid-19. How did she get it? Stay at the hospital for three days, aunt won’t take them back when it’s time to leave, can’t go back to the house either. ICE deportation officers could be waiting to arrest her, and remove her and her baby.
Reema wanted to gather her in her arms and hold her for a very long time until Silvia’s ear would ache from the press of her sternum—the kind of embrace she reserved for her bravest patients, but she couldn’t hug her anymore. Social distancing rules did not allow it. Instead, Reema listened and reflected. Praised her grace and strength. Told her she was a good mama for taking care of her baby and doing what she needed to, despite challenging circumstances.
Four hours later . . .
Reema is in the break room, but she can no longer get a “quick” cup of coffee. As she carefully removes all items of her PPE (personal protective equipment), she sees her daughter’s number flash on her cell phone. She puts Gia on speaker as she washes her hands for the fiftieth time
“What’s up?” she asks.
“Dadi did Dussehra puja today,” her daughter chirps. Gia’s Dadi—Reema’s mother-in-law—is visiting from India, another reason why it’s convenient to have a job to go to every morning.
Today is Dussehra, oh yeah! The age-old story of good (Lord Ram) versus evil (Ravan). Ravan is the mythical multiheaded demon king of Lanka in Hindu mythology. With ten heads and twenty arms, the fearsome Ravan could change into any form he wished and was made invincible from death.
In her mind’s eye, Reema could see the effigy of Ravan being burnt in the dusty parade ground in her neighborhood in New Delhi to commemorate Ravan’s defeat when he abducted Ram’s wife, Sita. She and her brother would find a nice spot among the noisy crowds—hundreds of people jostling and bumping into each other—to watch the effigy burn with flames from an arrow shot by young men standing below.
Her brother would clap when the first arrow hit Ravan and started a small fire. A few more arrows would strike the effigy tied to a wooden pole, and the flames rose higher. Cheers went through the crowd, her brother was jubilant, and the noise was deafening. Bits of embers broke from Raavan’s burning body and rained down around them, scorching the ground.
A lifetime away. Reema shook her head ruefully as she finished drying her hands on the industrial-sized paper towels, and thoughts of Silvia crossed her mind. Who was the Ravan now? Was it Corona? Was it China? Was it Trump?
And, Ram? No guesses there. It was the healthcare workers rolling up their sleeves and giving it their all. It was the ER doctors with their “we are in this together” mentality and a deep, shared aim to treat patients with humanity. Hashtag: Covid Warriors!
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