How to explain the unthinkable

By Julia R. Arévalo

Madrid, Mar 18 (efe-epa).- Manuel R. turned 81 Wednesday at a residential care home in Madrid and his daughter was preparing a small birthday gift for him – a Skype call so that they could at least see each other.Manuel, like 48,000 other care home residents in the region of Madrid, is not allowed to have any visitors. He is at high risk of contracting COVID-19.Being among the country’s most vulnerable, they must all be protected from the dreaded bug, so authorities in Madrid had closed off 425 care homes to anything other than strictly “essential” visits a week before the rest of the country was ordered to stay at home.

For Manuel, gone were the mornings in the sun he enjoyed with Carlos or Alfredo who, more than caregivers, are family friends who would bring him to the local bar to enjoy an aperitivo alongside familiar neighborhood faces.

As were the daily visits from his wife, who lives next door, and his son. Before the care homes were closed, both had been unable to see him for days because of colds that wouldn’t budge, or at least what appeared to be colds. This is the diagnosis that doctors treating his mother at home went with.In Madrid, there are 20,000 suspected cases of COVID-19. Not all have been tested but the health ministry has promised to screen even those with the lightest symptoms within two or three days.The capital region is the epicenter of the pandemic in Spain, the fourth worst-hit country in the world, with 13,910 confirmed cases and 623 deaths.The first cases of the virus were detected at a care home in Madrid, and this week four more of those centers for older people were confirmed as hotspots in Spain. In one such facility in the capital, half of the residents are ill and at least 17 have died without their loved ones by their side.Manuel’s symptoms started with a fever and a cough on Monday night and he was placed in isolation.We can only imagine the loneliness and confusion an elderly person who has been isolated from their family and now their fellow residents at mealtimes must feel.The following morning he vomited and it partly flooded the bronchi in his lungs, falling into a state of semi-consciousness.“He’s still looking handsome as ever,” his wife says when she is finally allowed to see him, along with their daughter. The visit would have to be brief and protective gear is mandatory, as is keeping a safe distance.They are not even allowed to console each other with a hug.The daughter had asked for him to be taken to the emergency room at the hospital, standard procedure in any normal situation but a selfish request in these extraordinary times.

“They are absolutely collapsed. If we send him, they’ll send him back and he could be worse off. Because of his deteriorating condition, the hospital won’t accept him,” a doctor at the care home told the family.

People like Manuel are not being tested, and therefore the official diagnosis the family is given is “severe respiratory infection.” The treatment is oxygen, serum and a broad range of antibiotics provided by the hospital. “They are telling us to treat him as though he were positive, but there are no tests to confirm this. We’re giving him treatment for a bacterial infection. It is a battle that he has to win,” another doctor said in a bid to give the family encouragement.The staff at the care home said Manuel had been doing well during the week. He was deflated by the absence of his loved ones but fully aware of the situation in Spain, as personnel tried their best to explain it clearly and simply.

But how do we explain this? How will we ever be able to understand it?

Manuel can no longer hear anything on the phone or TV, his broken back has kept him in a wheelchair for the last two years and recently he could hardly speak.At noon on Wednesday, the phone rings, bringing with it some relief. Manuel is conscious and he is allowed visitors, although only one person and only for a short while.

“I don’t think he has it,” says one doctor, sharing the daughter’s relief. What an emotional rollercoaster it must be to work with such fragile people in such conditions.

Around 6 million Spaniards are 70 or older, according to official data. They are indeed the most vulnerable, because we are not even hoping for a diagnosis, let alone providing them with the best possible medical care

It had been more than one month since I had seen my father. The emergency in Europe was declared while I was in the middle of a business trip in Asia, which fortunately was cut short.

He was barely able to utter two sentences while I tried to explain the inconceivable: the empty streets, the closed shops, the overcrowded hospitals, the separated families, unable to touch each other in case they have the symptoms of a cold, and me covered from head to toe, not allowed close enough to hug him.

“How old?”, he asks me.

“81, dad. And you don’t have the bug, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking. None of us have it, we are all fine.”

“You’re going to have to be in this room alone for several days, but you keep fighting.” He promises that he will with a gesture, but those beaming eyes drift off further afield, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

“I love you,” he tells me. In the end, it was he who gave me a gift. EFE-EPA


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