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One couple first survives cancer, then COVID-19

Peter Gordon   //  

I reached into the far corners of the cabinet and felt around for the little box. There it was! I pulled it out. It was still half-full after all these years. I took out one of the masks. A shudder rippled through me. I never imagined that a little piece of fabric with two elastic loops could bring back such a powerful feeling of déjà vu.

My mind flashed back 11 ½ years, to the doctors and nurses and attendants hovering over my hospital bed during my transplant stay, their faces hidden behind masks. And then to the months afterward, when a face mask became a standard part of my wardrobe, a fragile line of defense protecting my weakened immune system from the threats all around. I recalled the sideward glances and double takes when I ventured out in public… I pulled out a few masks and placed them on the table in Mary Ann’s temporary new “bedroom,” along with some rubber gloves and sanitizer. I’d been working feverishly all day, dragging furniture to and fro, setting up a sofa bed in her office, dividing our condo into two separate living quarters. I hadn’t seen my wife in almost a month. She’d gotten ensnared on a long business trip in Germany as the Coronavirus raged across Europe. We’d struggled with what to do – stay hunkered down over there and ride it out? Risk a flight home? Would the U.S. be safer, or would the virus be getting worse over here?

She finally decided to make a run for it, and now her plane was in the air! I scrambled to put the finishing touches on everything: Pre-positioning masks, handwashing soap, clothes, toiletries, office supplies, and the like. Trying to rehearse every precaution we’d need to take. Because of her international travel and my extra-high COVID risks, we would have to remain totally separated from each other for at least two weeks. This was going to be interesting.

It was an unusual homecoming. My heart jumped with joy and relief when I finally saw Mary Ann enter the baggage claim area, but all I could manage was an awkward wave from behind my mask. Then came our odd dance of distance and caution as we settled into our separate quarters at home, getting used to our new precautions and routines.

The entry hallway in our apartment became a no-man’s-land between our two worlds. We named it the DMZ (after the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea). Neither of us ventured near the DMZ without a mask and gloves. All of our communication was either across this buffer zone or via text message. The kitchen was in my territory, so food and dishes were my job. I’d set her meals on a table in the DMZ, then back away while she picked them up. We reversed the process when she was done with the dishes. There was constant hand washing before and after each exchange.

Much of this seemed familiar. We’d gone through similar precautions when I was quarantined at home after my transplant – the masks & gloves, the constant sanitizing, the extreme care with food, etc. We felt like old hands at this, and it was actually sort of a fun challenge for a couple days.

But then, on Mary Ann’s third day home, she said her throat and lungs felt as if she’d inhaled something burning. Soon afterward she started complaining of a headache and sore muscles. Then shivering and chills. Her temperature spiked. She curled up on the sofa bed and couldn’t get up. My heart sank. Was it just a bad case of the flu, or the dreaded COVID-19? It was excruciating to have to keep my distance – I couldn’t take her temperature, or wipe her feverish forehead with a wet cloth, or hold her hand, or anything.

The next morning she was feeling miserable and couldn’t eat anything except a half piece of toast. We called her doctor and explained her symptoms. They said to bring her in immediately for testing. She somehow managed to get up and make it to the car on her own – I couldn’t come near her to help. She huddled under a blanket in the back seat. I pulled into the testing lab parking lot. A technician came out wearing full haz-mat gear and helmet, like a space suit. We rolled down the rear window and she tested Mary Ann right there, inserting a long Q-tip type swab into her nose. It took about five seconds. When we got home, Mary Ann collapsed in bed for the night. The next day the TV was on in the background – one of the morning news programs was showing some angry folks waving signs and yelling that the Coronavirus scare was nothing more than a media-driven hoax. That’s when the phone rang. It was Mary Ann’s doctor, giving us the news that she had tested positive. Some hoax! Suddenly it was real.

I felt more vulnerable than ever. I had virtually all the COVID high-risk factors: over 65, history of leukemia, compromised & suppressed immune system, GVHD of the lungs, and so on. How could I take care of her and somehow keep myself safe at the same time? I’d never been so focused and “deliberate” in my life – conscious of every move, every breath, everything I touched, constantly sanitizing everything. Just for the heck of it, I put a notepad near the kitchen sink and make a checkmark every time I washed my hands. By early evening there were 37 checkmarks, and I gave up keeping track.

The next day my doctor called – knowing my health history, she wanted me to get tested. I drove back to the testing site. For some reason, they didn’t do it in the parking lot this time, but instead walked me inside through a narrow hallway and sat me in a big exam chair. The swab up my nose was a bit uncomfortable but over in no time.

The next day the results came back negative! Whew! By all accounts, Mary Ann’s infection was now past the peak contagious period, so apparently our extreme separation precautions had worked. I never realized how much anxiety had been bottled up inside me until that test result came back – I cried with relief. But this was no time to let down our guard.

On the morning of day 4, Mary Ann asked for something other than toast for breakfast – an encouraging sign. Her fever started declining. Her humor returned. This trend continued for several more days – she gained energy bit by bit. As she neared the critical three-days-with-no-fever benchmark, we started breathing a little easier. On the morning of day 7, I heard some music playing across the DMZ. Mary Ann had put her laptop on the floor and was dancing to the disco classic “I Will Survive!” Then she switched to The Village People and gestured for me to join her. We started dancing to “YMCA” together, trying unsuccessfully to shadow each other across the DMZ – two middle-aged goofballs with terrible rhythm and embarrassingly poor dance moves, laughing and celebrating together…

The celebration didn’t last long. That afternoon my throat started feeling sore. Then my entire windpipe. Then headache, dizziness, extreme fatigue. I collapsed on the bed. My fever spiked. It was all happening so fast. I flashed back to my post-transplant quarantine, when a dangerous intestinal infection called C-Difficile brought me to the edge of death’s door. Could something similar be happening again? I tried to stay calm on the outside, but deep inside I was terrified.

Suddenly our roles switched – Mary Ann became my caretaker, just as she’d done so brilliantly 11 ½ years before. Her infection was beyond the danger zone so she could now approach my bedside more closely, although we were still very careful. She brought me tea and snacks and took my temperature what seemed like every five minutes.

When my doctor heard my new symptoms, she wanted me to get tested again. (I guess you get special attention when you’re a transplant survivor.) So the next day I managed to pull myself together and somehow drove back to the testing center. The results came back later and confirmed what we already suspected: I was now positive for COVID-19! Reality hit again.

I remained flat in bed for the next two days, sleeping most of the time. I kept the phone within reach, just in case. Mary Ann kept me well hydrated and fed - for some reason, I didn’t lose my appetite. My temperature remained elevated, but it never spiked to dangerous levels. Aside from fever, my greatest concern was my lungs, but my coughing remained mild and my breathing was OK - each breath a source of reassurance. Our super-affectionate cat Gizmo was in heaven – he remained curled up next to me the whole time… I ended up following almost the exact same pattern as Mary Ann did with her infection a week earlier: On Day 4 my fever broke. The next few days saw gradual improvement – a little wobbly and lightheaded at times, but better overall. On day 8, after I passed the three-days-with-no-fever-or-major-symptoms milestone, the doctors confirmed that I was out of the woods. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, and the oxygen never felt sweeter. Once again, I felt like I’d dodged a bullet…

Over the next few weeks, we both had lingering after-effects: sore throat & irritated lungs, mild coughing, occasional fatigue and light-headedness. Even so, we felt good enough to return to our regular lives. Of course, our work worlds had totally changed. With all her trade shows and customer travel canceled, Mary Ann had to reinvent her entire sales strategy. Virtually all of my corporate training gigs had dried up, so I found myself scrambling for new sources of revenue, transitioning programs from live to virtual, trying to write more, etc. I guess you could say this scramble was my new “job,” and I became totally immersed in it.

During this time, Mary Ann kept mentioning something about an upcoming plasma donation program for COVID-19 survivors. She was continuously monitoring when it would become available, and she kept giving me updates several times a day. To tell the truth, I was so preoccupied that I only listened with half an ear – I’d tease her about her relentlessness, and then turn my focus back to my own work.

One morning she burst into my office with a big smile and her arms raised triumphantly. My first thought was that she’d closed a million-dollar sale and was about to break into another round of the “YMCA” dance! No, actually she’d gotten a call from the Red Cross; their plasma donation program was finally ready to go, and she had just been accepted for their opening morning. I couldn’t believe how excited she was - especially knowing her fear of needles.

I asked her about this, and her answer stopped me in my tracks: She’d read about a family in Louisiana with a seriously ill COVID-19 patient in the hospital ICU. They were desperately waiting for plasma from someone who’d recovered from the infection – they said it was their “last hope.” It reminded Mary Ann of our excruciating anxiety many years ago while waiting for a donor for me - she didn’t want anyone to go through that. Of course! Now I understood why she was so obsessed with donating her antigen-rich plasma. I felt touched and proud.

The next morning I dropped her off at the donation center. An hour later she bounded out with a spring in her step, a smile on her face, and a bag of Oreo cookies for me! She was the fifth person in Maine to donate post-COVID plasma, and she’d signed up to do so every month. And oh yes, the needle stick was nothing…

Mary Ann and I have returned to our evening walks along the harbor, wearing our masks and practicing social distancing of course. Savoring the fresh air and reflecting on yet another healthcare odyssey together. Just as with my transplant, we’ve emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. She told me that having (and recovering from) COVID-19 was like “getting a gift” - a priceless opportunity to use her experience and good fortune to help others.

While the chemistry of plasma and bone marrow might be a bit different, they’re both life-giving substances that give donors a similar reward - the amazing feeling that comes from saving lives and helping to make our world a better place. Spreading that word has become the purpose that keeps Mary Ann and me going. We invite you join us.

Peter Gordon

Peter Gordon is a corporate training facilitator and coach. He's also a writer and public speaker for the cancer and medical community. In 2008, Peter had a bone marrow transplant for AML. He chronicled his transplant and the challenging years afterward in his memoir “Six Years and Counting: Love, Leukemia, and the Long Road Onward.” Peter and his wife Mary Ann live in Portland, Maine. In their spare time, they enjoy hiking, skiing, kayaking and bicycling along the beautiful Maine coast in search of the perfect lobster roll.