Quarantine Chronicles Day 17: My sister is now among the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Long Beach

On Wednesday afternoon, there were 139 cases of COVID-19 in Long Beach. One of them is my sister.

Debi was admitted to Memorial Medical Center on Sunday after her daughter Katie checked her in. “Checked in” is perhaps too formal a term to use, bringing to mind a quaint procedure from the pre-COVID days. Nowadays, you just leave people who have contracted the virus on the curb and motor off, mob-style. No unnecessary contact.

Debi was in her La Marina home that has been in the family since 1967 when she was in eighth grade and I, her junior by 11 months, was in seventh. I had spoken with her a few days earlier and she told me she had the flu, but not to worry, it wasn’t coronavirus.

Debi was a dental hygienist a long time ago, and for the past several years she has worked as an event planner for an association of plastic surgeons. So, that’s the sort of medical training that allows her to confidently self-diagnose herself with “regular flu.” The kind of flu, I believe they called it the imbalance of humors, that your great-grandparents used to get that was cured by a couple of graham crackers and a tincture of opium.

And she expressed the same quack diagnosis to her middle child, Katie, earlier in the week. “It’s flu season. I have the flu.”

But when Debi stopped answering her phone or responding to text messages, Katie drove over to the house and found her mom feverish, disoriented, with a horrible cough and unable to make much sense.

When I found out she was in the hospital, I sent her a text. The perennial stupid question you ask people in the hospital: “How are you?”

“Kill me,” she responded.

My hands were tied. Everyone’s hands were tied. Her son and two daughters couldn’t visit. Neither could I. It was literally impossible for any of her family to kill her, so she suffered through the night, and so did we all, to a much lesser extent, obviously, but with the mental torture that comes through with crystalline clarity in the middle of the night when your mind has shoved away all trivial concerns leaving you with the greatest trouble it has available. I, for one, wondered if Debi would survive the night.

I had texted her, “Get strong.” She had responded, “I can’t.”

Then, “It’s pretty dark.”

Then, “Sorry.”

She had told me she thought it was the anniversary of our dad’s death, a night we’d spent years ago by his bedside for 12 hours until he finally stopped breathing.

“It was the saddest time,” she typed. “I loved that just you and I were there. Selfish.”

She and I were there for everything: our father’s long illness and his stays at UCLA Medical Center and a half-dozen nursing homes; we were there for our stepmother’s struggles with depression and her various suicide attempts; we were there for any number of trials and hardships associated with growing up with weird forms of punishment and Byzantine religious rituals. We’ve always had each other’s back against myriad adversities. When you are the younger one, your older sibling is perhaps the only person you have loved your entire life, and that’s how I feel about my older and only sister.

The following day, I was overjoyed to discover that she had not only survived the night but was feeling a bit better. The ICU sometimes has that effect. I told her she was trending on Facebook.

“It’s on Facebook?”

“Yeah, Katie told Aunt Nancy who told Shirley who told Peggy, who told Kay… Now you’re more popular than kittens and cucumbers.”

Yesterday, Debi’s COVID-19 test results came in. Positive, to no one’s surprise. In fact, Katie told me that the doctors were so sure she had the virus that even if the test had returned negative, they were going to give her another, more probing and definitive test.

Still, she seemed OK in texts, we swapped a few YouTube music videos and I told her once again that she was famous on Facebook (we don’t use the term going viral), and she already has 100 times more real-life friends than I do. I told her that people always ask me if I’m related to her. “Sometimes I say yes,” I told her.

This morning, I checked in on Debi again. “Still in ICU. Beautiful room. Slept a bit last night and more this morning. Just have to figure out how to breathe without help.”

Last night she had been on 8 liters of oxygen, but this morning she was up to 12 liters, Katie told me. She’s nauseous and has trouble keeping food in her stomach. This disease has a few delightful options available on how to get rid of its patients’ food.

But despite all that, she told Katie she’s feeling better and when I asked her if I could write about it, she replied, “I love you so much. Write whatever you’d like.”

This is that, but I wish so much that there was more I could do. I can’t even bring a lousy daisy to my sister’s room or kiss her on the cheek. Not only is coronavirus dangerous, it’s a terribly lonely disease, too.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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