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Pneumonia Almost Killed Me. As COVID Restrictions Ease, I Fear for My Life.

In 2017, I was hit with pneumonia, and my lungs remain damaged. When “normal” arrives, it won’t be for everyone.

A clinician cares for a patient at the Providence St. Mary Medical Center on March 11, 2022, in Apple Valley, California.

Part of the Series

Five years ago, I was hit with a galloping case of double-lung pneumonia. My body filled with poison, at one point I stopped breathing, and I was on a ventilator for days. I was almost two weeks in the ICU, and I damn near died.

In the aftermath, my lungs remain ruined things. I confront stairways the way Ernest Shackleton probably confronted the Antarctic tundra: Yeah, I can do it, but God DAMN. I can’t breathe well on a good day, and as a number of medical professionals have warned me, catching COVID will not be a good day. No matter how vaccinated I am and continue to be, the rise of vax-dodging COVID variants has cancelled my ticket to the party. A “mild case” is not on my Bingo card even with every shot done; if I hit the jackpot, it will likely be for every coin in the box.

I am telling you all this for two reasons. First and foremost, as I have been writing about COVID throughout these two years, you deserve to know my specific perspective. I have labored mightily to keep undue cynicism out of my reporting, even as I have traversed some truly dark places trying to come to grips with the reality of my situation. I believe I have succeeded, and in any event there has been a firewall of excellent editors to make sure of it. When there has been good COVID news, I have written about it with genuine enthusiasm, even gusto. There just hasn’t been very much good news, is all.

In short, friends, my objectivity is sound, and that matters. Right now, there seems to be quite a bit of good news. The Delta and Omicron crush of new infections is visibly on the wane, and as the weather warms, articles about the great days to come are popping through the snow like spring crocuses. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; for millions, thanks to the vaccinations and the better-late-than-never availability of testing, life is going to get better at some point. It is Day 733 of the worst bingo game in human history, and it’s becoming clear that the way most of us have lived over these two years, if we can be said to have lived responsibly, will someday transform into a version of “normal” that can be tolerated, if not embraced. The need for it is in the air like pollen, and every time the sun emerges from clouds — even these dingy, chilly March clouds — you can feel people’s souls turn toward it like tiny flowers toward the light.

However, whatever the new normal turns out to be, it will do its thing without my participation.

I’m not saying this so I can keep you all down here in Grumpyville with me. I’m saying it because there are millions of us in this place — particularly vulnerable to the virus — and the virus has not gone away.

There are almost 3 million refugees from the slaughterhouse of Ukraine jammed into shelters and beneath bombed-out bridges right now, and COVID has never seen such fertile ground.

New variants are already on the move, creating a surge of cases in Europe and prompting another mass lockdown in China. This is due to the rise of a new subvariant of Omicron, currently called BA.2 until it earns its Greek letter. Scientists are calling it the “stealth variant” because it is difficult to detect and appears to be more virulent than prior strains. This is predictive of nothing, but we have also heard this same story before.

One week in the U.S. right now sees more than 238,000 new COVID infections, and over 8,400 deaths. That is not “over” by even the most reckless definition of the word.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives just dumped a $15 billion COVID package from the $1.5 trillion spending bill in another appalling act of mortal short-sightedness. The political will wasn’t there, you see, what with the war and all… and never mind that a COVID outbreak might just be the next gruesome chapter of that war.

For all the people who have taken this pandemic seriously, there has been enough sheer indifference among the populace and government to create a gravity well from which we have yet to escape.

“I hope I’m wrong this time,” immunologist and professor at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Medicine, Mark Dybul told Deseret News, “but I think by March, April, May, we will have a fully vaccine-resistant variant. There’s simply no way you can have such low rates of vaccination around the world with the virus ping-ponging between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. I’m an immunologist. The probability of us seeing a vaccine-resistant strain is very high.”

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am; I don’t want you stuck here with me. I don’t want my daughter stuck here with me; her bedtime story last night was “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and it almost undid me. Sooner or later, I do very much hope and believe, the science will catch up with the virus, and most will be able to crawl, stand, walk and then run toward every happy post-COVID fantasy they have concocted since the curtain came down. As a spectator, it will be my favorite show of all time…

And I guess that’s the other reason I’m talking about all this. If that day does come, do me a favor: Don’t forget about us. There are millions like me — people who are immunocompromised due to cancer or heart disease, people who are damaged as I was the last time pneumonia tapped me on the shoulder, people who, for whatever medical reasons, will not be free to frolic when this nightmare turns into fuzzy bees and kitten buttons for everyone else.

It’s a bad beat, and nothing for it. I have been slapping myself with D.H. Lawrence while reciting the wisdom of Dr. Seuss — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” — for many months now as the reality of this has sunk in good and deep.

Don’t forget about us when someone starts talking about “the end of COVID.” Over in this corner, there is no such thing.

Seuss was right though: It happened, all the good times I took for granted 734 days ago. I was there. I remember all of it. For the time being, for me and those like me, that will have to do.

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