Three weeks ago, life took a hard turn. I found myself pointed down a very unfamiliar road. My wife and I both got sick with the Covid virus. I got better. She got worse. A lot worse. I took her to the hospital a week ago Saturday. She has been in ICU eleven days now.
I don’t even know where to start with this experience. I am torn even to mention it, because so many have lost so much. Loved ones have died way too young. Separation and isolation make the agony so much harder to bear. Some people have come back from the mouth of this beast. They have gone on the ventilator and turned to live another day. I am somewhere in between right now. A place where the outcomes are still unknown.
We pulled up to the ER and my daughter went inside to retrieve a wheelchair. Beth simply didn’t have the strength to walk. I helped her out of the back seat and into the chair. Because I was sick, I had to stay outside in the car. Laura was the adult taking care of sick parents. What I didn’t think to do was to hug Beth, look her in the eye and tell her everything was going to be alright. I just stepped out of the way and watched as she was wheeled away through the hospital doors.
This sounds stupid, I know. But in that moment, I wasn’t sure what just happened. And over the course of the next two days as we talked to nurses and doctors over the phone, I got even more lost. It was like I had time traveled to another universe where nothing made sense and I was trying to figure out how to get out of the rabbit hole we had fallen into.
Early last week, Laura came back down, and we went to the hospital just to check in. We couldn’t go see Beth. We knew that, but my daughter was determined to see if she could talk to a nurse or doctor, or anybody face to face. I sat in the car coughing my head off. I think it was around 2:00 when she came back to the car. She was hungry. I didn’t care. My taste and appetite were all out of whack. We went through the drive through and picked up a couple of chicken sandwiches. She paid, which made me feel like a child. We both decided to wait until we got home to try and eat.
I’ve heard people talk about the loss of taste. I’m not sure how that happens, but it does. Coffee is terrible. Dr. Pepper tastes like boiled shoe water. Don’t ask. I’m only using my imagination. Even this chicken sandwich is dull and tasteless.
My phone rings. It’s the nurse from the second floor. I’ll call her Josie. That’s not her name, but she did something heroic that needs to be told and at the same time needs to be kept secret. I feel like if I tell too much she could lose her job.
I can tell she’s young by her voice. “Mr. Chappell, the decision has been made to move your wife down to MSICU.” There were several questions and medical things said, but basically, she was asking my permission to move her.
“Of course. But I have a question. Is there any way on earth I can see her before you take her down? I’ll suit up. You can spray me down. Put me through a decontamination chamber. I don’t care. I just want to see her. Can you help me?”
I knew I was asking the impossible. I hated to put her in such an awkward position, but I wasn’t thinking about her. “Don’t get your hopes up. I’ll call you back.”
I was still sitting at the kitchen table trying to swallow a bite of chicken when my phone rang. It was Josie.
“How long will it take you to get here?” We had just gotten home from Columbus. I told her, “Maybe 30 minutes.”
The conversation started to sound like a covert rendezvous from a spy movie. I imagined her whispering in a private corner of the hospital where no one could overhear her. “Take down my cell number. When you get here, come in through the doors next to the ER. Don’t go into the ER. Send me a text when you get inside and I’ll come down and meet you. Don’t talk to anyone about what we’re doing.”
I obeyed to the letter.
While I was standing in the atrium all alone, a door at the far end clanked open. I could see her smile from 30 yards away. She motioned and I moved in her direction.
I had been thinking about something to say to her. We were walking fast. “I hope you know that you are like the hand of God’s mercy to me right now. I can’t thank you enough.” She told me, “Step through this door.” We were in a naked hospital hallway. “I just couldn’t do nothing,” she said.
We walked around the corner. Got on an elevator up to the second floor. Amazingly, I wasn’t coughing. It had been days since my last fever. She helped me put on a double mask and a full sterile suit. Coverings. Things tied up front and in back.
She looked right at me. I just realized that she had brilliant red hair. Her eyes spoke as much as her voice. “Your wife in right through those doors. This is the far end of the hall on the other side and she’s the first door on your right. You won’t have to pass any rooms or go down the hall at all. You ready?”
I could only nod.
We stepped into the hall and she opened the room door for me. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And she left.
Beth and I held hands that day like it was the first time. I told her I was sorry that I forgot to hug her. I spoke about being afraid. She spoke about being at peace. I told her that I wasn’t going to say ‘goodbye’. “I’ll see you soon when all this is over.”
I stepped back out into the hallway and just stood for a moment. Josie saw me and came down the hall to help me out of my costume. I thanked her again for her extraordinary kindness.
She got nervous. “My heart told me I needed to do that for y’all. I’m so grateful I was able to be there to help you through this. These are the moments that truly make my job worth doing. I firmly believe that the little things we do are truly the biggest.”
For a moment I was pretty sure I saw a halo somewhere in the neighborhood of that redhead. “Josie,” I told her, “Angels are everywhere, and you are one of them.”
This is now Day Eleven. Other Angels in the ICU are still at work.