My friend Jenny is a doctor at the Brooklyn hospital which serves Sunset Park, a neighborhood dear to my heart as I used to live there. I remember dodging kids playing street hockey and shopping at Winley’s Emporium, Chinese muzak and Dolly Parton songs blaring as shoppers selected from bins of carrots, bitter melon, lotus root and plantain. That was a while ago, but the neighborhood remains diverse even as real estate prices have caused displacement throughout the borough. According to the most recent census, about half of Sunset Park’s residents were born outside of the United States—primarily in China, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
The wealth of languages spoken in the neighborhood is a joy, but also, from my friend’s point of view, a challenge. If you are a doctor who speaks English and Hindi, how do you talk with a Spanish- or Mandarin-speaking patient? Even when doctors and patients share a common language, other barriers pop up—fissures and misunderstandings related to differences in race, religion, education, gender, age, ability. Fascinated by the role that communication plays in medicine, Jenny has spent years developing an intensive training that helps medical residents better connect with their patients. Extreme Kids & Crew has been involved in the disability component of the program; this spring, some of our parents were planning on visiting her hospital to share stories. Needless to say, that plan fell through. But communication is still on my friend’s mind.
How best to console a person while wearing a hazmat suit? Think of the patients, separated from their families and not even able to see the faces of the doctors and nurses attending to them. Hospital workers have taken to pinning pictures of themselves to their protective gear so patients can get a visual of the human behind the mask. But the families can’t see anyone: they're stuck on the outside, unable to visit. In cases where death seems inevitable, doctors have been able to call in the next-of-kin to arrange for last good-byes. But death doesn’t always act in a predictable manner, and loved ones can’t always be reached. There is a great deal of uncertainty and anguish, both inside and outside of the hospital.
Enter the humble telephone call. Ideally, the primary care physician would be the one to get in touch with families to provide them with updates. But it is not always possible for people running from ventilator to ventilator to look up telephone numbers, leave messages, wait for returned calls, or coordinate with translators. So my friend has gotten together a group of radiologists, neurologists and other specialists, trained them (“You ask the family what they understand of the situation first, then you tell them what you know.”), and given them the information they need to impart. Sometimes, the news they deliver is good. Sometimes, it’s not. But as difficult as the process can be, even with clunky translation and broken connections, even when the news is bad, the doctors say they appreciate the work. The known, after all, is invariably better than the unknown. And regardless of the news, family members almost always thank them for calling. “They are so grateful,” Jenny said. We both teared up: this heartache and kindness at the same time, this understanding that in spite of the regulations and precautions tearing us apart, we are all caught up in the same thing.
The Covid pandemic is often compared to a war. In the numbers of dead and the way we cannot honor the dead as we would like, there are similarities, but war is a trait of humans--and those other extremely organized and populous creatures, ants. Covid is not a multi-tiered society looking to claim our land, resources, allegiance. Covid are motes of fat and protein looking for places to replicate. If they could possess something like preference, they would undoubtably prefer not to kill us; after all, they can’t replicate on a corpse.
I find this reassuring. For once, we are not killing each other. Instead, we are working together. The “we” to which I refer is enormous. As of April 6, 184 out of the UN’s 193 member countries had either issued recommendations to restrict internal movement or enacted some level of national lockdown. I know, I know: There are people flouting the recommendations or making cynical use of them. There are political leaders whose actions seem inhumane at best. But still, in my life, I have never seen people acting in such strange and bewildering harmony. Billions of people are staying home to protect the most vulnerable among us, billions are putting their lives on the line to keep us fed, medicated, clothed, clean and healthy. The news cycle is dwelling on disability related issues practically 24/7.
There is much to be celebrated--from the exhausting, loving work happening at Jenny’s hospital, to the neighborhood volunteers delivering food and supplies to the elderly, to the city wide clamor of thanks that erupts from the streets each night at 7 pm, to the wonderfully spirited art and ad hoc performances that pop up on my computer screen, made by people from all over the world, bent on reaching out, even during quarantine, and offering encouragement.
I love the videos of Iranian doctors and nurses dancing for their patients. But as I’m stuck at home, what gets my own feet working are the clips of people getting down in their kitchens. There’s the tango from a tiny Parisian flat and those South African ladies in their finery, working those hips as they mix that batter. But you don't need to dress up. You don't need impeccable rhythm. You just need to move, any way you can, and let that joy percolate. Here we are, still here!
I’ll sign off with a few Extreme Kids families, dancing from their homes to yours. Why not join them?