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MEMPHIS —This is a reporter’s notebook column by breaking news reporter Micaela Watts, who has spent the last year covering the COVID-19 pandemic in Memphis from her home office until a phone call sent her into one of the area COVID-19 wards.
The nurse began preparing me as we wound our way through the labyrinth of the still-new Shorb Tower at Methodist University hospital.
I had been told one family member could visit a day, for one hour a day while she was in palliative care. But her oxygen was nosediving, quickly. The staff had alerted my father, who called me and said, “You should be the one to go.”
So here I was.
As we rounded one corner after another at a brisk clip, the nurse told me, “Stay as long as you need to.”
He knew she — my grandmother — wasn’t long for this world. She had been admitted to the hospital exactly one week prior after testing positive. She had received a single shot of the Pfizer vaccine in February. She had felt ill the day of her second dose appointment and canceled her appointment. My family was plotting on dragging her out of her apartment to try again.
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I asked the nurse leading me, Brett, a young man with a wife and a child at home, “Have you been in the COVID unit for the entirety of the pandemic?”
Yes, he said. He had worked in COVID units within the region’s two largest hospital systems, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare and Baptist Memorial Health Care. He had managed to avoid contracting the virus in this time. It had been a long year of worrying he would infect his family.
The doors of the COVID unit on the sixth floor resembled a commercial walk-in fridge. Heavy, opaque, no windows. To the side of the doors, bins stacked into columns were brimming with personal protective equipment. The excess was oddly comforting.
Commercial Appeal reporter Micaela Watts and her grandmother, Evelyn Watts pose for a family photo in 2017 in Evelyn’s Lutheran Village apartment. (Photo: Micaela Watts)
I thought back to the beginning of the pandemic when PPE scarcity was reported all over. Weekly staff emails from Methodist’s CEO, Michael Ugwueke, included status updates for each hospital’s PPE supply. I was always relieved to open up his emails and see ‘green’ indicators for the supplies of surgical masks, N95 masks, gowns, and gloves.
Brett helped me pick out an N95 mask that fit. I stuck my arms into the sleeves of a yellow, gauzy gown. Then I snapped on a pair of size small purple latex gloves.
“Are you ready?” he then asked. I wasn’t. I nodded yes anyway. Brett waved a badge and pushed the doors open.
The COVID unit was bright and clean. And though Brett had warned me I might hear a lot of different alarms and beeps, it was eerily quiet.
He opened the door to my grandmother’s room.
“Miss Evelyn?” he said. “Someone is here to see you.”
My eyes focused on the shape of her body under hospital blankets. She had been petite, on the higher end of short her whole life. With age, she shrunk.
As my gaze moved towards the top of the bed, I first became aware of the dull roar of her oxygen supply. It reminded me of the closed-air system on airplanes, the hiss they make when planes are idling on the runways.
I went up to her. Underneath the oxygen mask, her lips were dark. She took a ragged, gravelly breath, I heard her drowning in her own body.
At this moment, two worlds that I strive to keep separate came crashing together: my job and my family. I was face-to-face with COVID-19, a set of genetic codes contained in a virus strand that brought the modern world to its knees. And now it had my grandmother, my Mimi.
For the past 13 months, reporting on COVID-19 alongside my colleagues meant meticulously entering data on spreadsheets. It meant decoding health directives for the public. It meant a lot of worry and more understanding of how the virus worked than I ever wanted to know. It also meant listening to a lot of heartbreak. Now it was my heart that was breaking.
In her mostly sedated state, Mimi grabbed my gloved hand and held on. She was permitted visitors only now that she was under hospice care. She had been alone in this ward for six days, no visits from family. I looked up to see a few more staffers enter the room. The palliative care doctor, Dr. Blair, placed a hand on my back.
Evelyn Watts grips the hands of her granddaughter, Micaela Watts, in the last minutes of her life. Evelyn died of COVID-19 on April 19, 2021. (Photo: Micaela Watts)
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep her comfortable. She won’t be in any pain.”
I burst into sobs.
I looked over at Dr. Blair. To my surprise, I saw her eyes fill with tears. After a year of the pandemic and her career in palliative care, she was still moved by a granddaughter saying goodbye.
“I can’t imagine what it’s been like doing this for an entire year,” I managed to say.
“Families like yours make it worth it,” she replied. “Your grandmother is so sweet and so feisty. We’ve grown attached to her.”
Brett pulled up a hospital chair and positioned it under me. He fixed a pitcher of water and left it on the counter in case I needed a sip. He showed me where the extra gloves were, in case I needed to change mine.
“Listen,” he said. “If this is too hard, and you need to leave … I’ll stay with her. I promise you, she will not go out alone.”
I thanked him for that assurance and settled into my chair.
Over the next hour and a half, I held her hands and talked, loudly. Mimi relied on hearing aids and our regular phone calls were a lot of yelling. While she was hospitalized, phone calls were almost impossible. Between her faulty hearing and the whoosh of the oxygen, I knew I needed to shout. I wondered if anyone passing outside her room could hear me yelling Psalm 23.
“I love you,” I yelled. “I love you and it’s OK to go now.”
I watched as a single tear started to spill out of the corner of each of her closed eyes. She tried speaking, tried sitting up. She was already halfway gone.
I thought about the dozens of times I had typed out information about heightened risks for seniors. I thought about all the times I’d heard folks inaccurately describe COVID-19 as though it only affected the elderly, and as though that was reason enough to not take a pandemic seriously.
Mimi was my elderly person, and I had dutifully avoided seeing her for a whole year, even as I worried it would be her last. She was, after all, 100 years old. Time was already coming for her, that was true. But did that make watching your loved one die of this virus any easier? Not for me.
We didn’t want the staff to put her through any extensive life-saving measures. Intubating a centenarian would have been cruel. More importantly, it wasn’t what she would have wanted.
When Brett next entered the room to administer her next shot of morphine, I knew it was time.
““I love you,” I yelled. “I love you and it’s OK to go now.””
“Brett …” I began, turning towards him. “You can turn it off now.”
Brett nodded and pivoted towards the control panel for her oxygen. The hissing stopped. The silence that followed was the loudest sound I ever heard.
“She’s going to go quickly now,” he said. I nodded and kept Mimi’s small hand in my grip. She gripped back, hard.
I watched her draw fewer and fewer breaths until there were none noticeable. Her grip went slack.
I felt a hand on my back again. It was Brett. I looked at him, and he nodded. He didn’t have to say anything.
I slumped over in my chair, and he folded me into a hug. He reassured me that, since there was no intubation, no drawn-out fight, Mimi’s passing was one of the most peaceful he had seen in a solid year of watching people die.
In a blur, I was escorted to the lobby by Brett and Dr. Blair, both wiping their eyes along with me.
I took the next day off from work. The day after, I wanted to go back. I needed the distraction.
At precisely 10 a.m. that day, the health department sent out their customary tweet with the day’s COVID-19 numbers as well as the daily press email. I opened it up.
There was one new reported death due to complications from COVID-19.
Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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