A few weeks ago, as I walked through the front door of the detox house I’m a medical assistant at, I noticed what appeared to be a familiar character languishing on his old couch haunt, but I couldn’t be sure, as he was listless and downcast, and our eyes did not meet. He was all alone in the family room while the other handful of patients were huddled in the kitchen, murmuring amongst themselves and gazing upon him with disdain.
It looked like an Inuit folklore funeral where the man in question had been put on an ice floe and sent out to sea, into the sunset of a cold world.
I awkwardly stood by his pseudo bedside to see if he’d look at me so I could gauge if this was a new admit or someone from the advanced phase of the rehab program that had been sent back to us for a storage container-like timeout due to a relapse on alcohol/drugs, bad behavior, psychosis, sickness, etc. I waited, but he kept his head turned, staring intently and avoidantly at the tv, waiting for me to go about my business—so I spared him the interaction and went into the office for a shift change report.
When I got to the office, I closed the door, and in a hushed tone asked my quasi supervisor, “Who’s that on the family room couch?”
Jimmy nonchalantly replied, “Oh, yeah, that’s Ricky. He’ll be back here with us for a few days or so until his throat culture comes back.”
“I thought that was him. So he’s got strep, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s what the providers think it might be. He’s got a fever, sore throat, etc. They brought him here because they had nowhere else to put him.”
“By the way, he didn’t bring any of his food from the other house, so if you could run to the store and get him enough to last at least the weekend, that’d be swell.”
The Lord of the Flies-like situation I had first perceived was now starting to make sense.
COVID-19 and quarantine procedures in general were already making our mental health patients overly paranoid, frustrated, depressed, stir-crazy, etc., and the addition of this ambiguously infected fellow was another nice monkey wrench in the mix.
After our report, I went out to break the ice with Dick and reintroduce myself via an air elbow handshake from six feet or so, saying, “Hey, Rick, I’m C.J., if you forgot. So what’s up, man? You got the rona or what, dog?”
After kind of coughing into his hand like a child actor trying to stay home sick from school, the young, meek little lad said, “No, I think it’s just strep.”
Right after he said that, one of the other patients aggressively walked over towards me and sternly said, “Can I talk to you in the office for a minute, please?”
Trying to be hospitable and ease the palpable tension, I said, “Sure thing.”
As we walked away, sensing that Ricky was nervous and felt like an outcast, I turned to him and said, “By the way, man, it’s good to see you again, even under these circumstances. Everything’s going to be fine. Please don’t hesitate to let us know if you need anything. Oh, and if you would, please make a small grocery list. I’ll be running out in a minute to grab you a few things. Thanks.”
As soon as we got to the office, the patient slammed the door and started yelling, “Dude, what the fuck?”
“They should call this place retox instead of detox. We’re here suffering as it is, trying to get through some of the most uncomfortable moments of our lives, and they send this kid back here to spread God only knows what to us all. It’s crazy! And on top of that, you guys are out of masks, so we’re basically defenseless.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“I don’t know, something,” he said.
“Alright, bear with me, man. I’ll call the doctor to see if she can give me some more information on the situation.”
“Ok, let us know what happens.”
After he walked out, I gently closed the door and took a deep breath, and after pensively letting it out, my coworker, Bob, said with a calm, demoralized voice, “He’s right, you know. This whole thing’s crazy. I’m a 60-year-old man with a myriad of health complications and am being subjected to an unmasked, potential COVID patient. What am I supposed to tell my wife and kids who are currently staying back with us from college? They’re already worried sick about me having to come to work every day with high-risk patients who are constantly flying in from all over the country.”
I was also irritated at the situation, and even though the company would be billed for me reaching out to the on-call provider after normal business hours, I too wanted some answers, even if it was more or less to save face with everyone else in the house, showing them that I was trying to do the best I could by them.
When the physician’s assistant answered the phone, she said, “Hey, C.J., what’s up?”
“Hey, Kathy… some of the patients are starting to go mutiny status due to Ricky being here, speculating that he might have COVID, and I wasn’t told much about the situation, so I just wanted to see if you were able to shed some more light on the subject.”
With a deep, stressed-out sigh, she said, “Yes, C.J., we only have so many coronavirus tests, and Ricky’s current symptoms didn’t meet the criteria for us to use one on him, so we did a throat culture and will go from there. Hopefully it’s just a bad cold. Please continue to social distance and do the best you can. He’ll probably only be there for another day or two. Thanks for all you do. Also, we’re working on getting you guys more PPE.”
When I emerged from the office to try and lay their COVID–worried minds to rest, all the patients, save for Ricky, were waiting just outside with wide eyes and slightly open mouths, like baby birds waiting for a worm. Even though Ricky was still in the other room and in earshot of us, he knew full-well what was going on, so I proceeded to tell them what the provider had told me, in an effort to stick up for Ricky and smooth over the situation.
“So, guys…I just talked to the PA, and she wants me to reassure you that things aren’t what you’re making them out to be. If we continue to support one another and take common sense precautions, we’ll all get through this together. Things should be somewhat back to ‘normal’ by Monday.”
They took what I said with a grain of salt and carried on, thankfully with somewhat less restlessness and hostility.
I took the break in action as the perfect time to grab Ricky’s grocery list and make my great escape to the store, another post-apocalyptic-like COVID paranoid place where half of the people were flat affect face masked zombies, and the other half unmasked, sick-of-it-all Orange County beach protest-type people.
Since we didn’t have fresh masks, I decided to put my trusty black bandana on when I got in the car, which gave me a flashback to wearing shemaghs when I served as a colloquial “doc” with the Marines.
As I drove down the street, I rolled the window down to take advantage of the fresh air in between both biological battle zones. I knew it was somewhat ridiculous to wear my bandana in the car, but I figured embracing the absurdity of it all would be a good way to boost my spirits. I welcomed the strange looks and laughter I got from a few pedestrians, and fantasized about them thinking me some type of guerrilla health care gangster, ready to rob the world of COVID-19 and scrub it from existence.
On my way back to the house, I passed through the Golden Arches for a “Thank You Meal,” figuring I could use what was basically a literal bite to eat before carrying on with our recovering clients.
Before I ate what I pretended was a Happy Meal, I said a small prayer and offered up my antibiotic-rich double burger as a sacrament to the health care gods.