What was the first day your life was changed forever by the Coronavirus? Was it the day your children’s schools were closed—indefinitely? The day that your business was forced to shut its doors or when you were laid off? Was it the day you went grocery shopping and found no bread, no milk, no chicken, and no toilet paper? Or was it the day our president declared that our nation was in the grips of a national pandemic?
For me, life change wo days prior to the official start of the pandemic: March 11.
I dropped my 11-year-old son, Benjamin Watland, off at Wright Denny Elementary that Wednesday morning, because he was excited to turn in his permission slip for the 5th grade field trip to Hershey Park and he wanted me to be a chaperone. I warned him not to get disappointed if we never got to go.
“Ben, I have a feeling. I think your school will be closed, the park will be closed, and we will never go on that field trip,” I said.
Benjamin smiled and said, “It’s ok. We’ll go when it opens if that happens — just the two of us!”
He smiled and ran up the stairs. He knew when I had a “feeling” to listen because I was often right.
That was the last morning I saw my son smiling, healthy, and able to run without being breathless.
That evening, he came home a different child. He had a dry cough, aches and pains, and no appetite. He had a low-grade fever and a sore throat.
Thursday afternoon, my ex-husband Eric, told me that there was someone who tested positive outbreak of the coronavirus in the SEC building, attached to Union Station and he walked through both every day. Eric worried that there was going to be people sick with the virus, layoffs, and a shortage of supplies. He urged me to go to stock up on whatever groceries I could — immediately.
I trusted him and went to five grocery stores the night before they shut down West Virginia schools, the night before the president proclaimed it a “pandemic.”
In Aldi, there were three loaves of gluten free bread left. There was no regular bread left for my middle schooler. Around me, as I grabbed the last two packages of ground beef, shoppers from Maryland and PA and Loudoun County, VA, talked of their “bare shelves” at their stores and “school closings.”
I raced off to four other stores and stocked up “just in case” we were quarantined.
Friday, we went to the pediatrician in Purcellville. Ben tested negative for strep and for flu. His fever was now 101.5, and he was coughing every few minutes.
“Could it be coronavirus?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “But there is a test shortage. He hasn’t travelled out of the country and he doesn’t know anyone diagnosed and they have strict rules for testing.”
I argued that my ex-husband could have caught it in DC and been a silent carrier. She agreed but sent us home and said that quarantine was optional. I went home and called the Center for Disease Control hotline for West Virginia. They told me the same thing about a test shortage, and that Ben didn’t qualify.
At this point, my son was coughing a lot, but his fever came and went. He woke up Saturday without a fever and asked to go for a walk. He grew breathless. My healthy 11-year-old had to lay down. The fever returned. This was Friday, and Trump proclaimed it a “pandemic.”
By Monday morning, Ben woke up and was wheezing.
“I can’t breathe Mom, help!” he said.
I let him use an inhaler I had used last year. It helped. We went to the pediatrician. She prescribed a child’s inhaler and spacer for Ben. I begged for Ben to be tested. She said she was sorry, unless he knew some one who had been diagnosed, he could not be tested.
“That is why there are no diagnosed cases in West Virginia,” I said, frustrated. “Because no one can get tested, even with symptoms!”
She agreed and sent us home.
That night, Ben panicked. He had just had his inhaler and felt like he still couldn’t breathe. He was taking it every two hours at this point.
“What if I have it mom? What if I have the virus and go to the hospital and I can’t warn my teachers and friends, and someone dies because I infected them?” he said.
I knew about the testing shortage. I knew about the rules. But I knew I was capable of anything I set my mind to.
“I promise you; I will get you tested,” I said, not knowing how. I ran a hot shower so he could breathe the steam.
Tuesday, I called the CDC. They turned us down again for testing. Then a friend lent us their nebulizer and albuterol. It helped Ben get a break of four hours with almost no coughing. I noticed that afternoon he was breathless even when we played ping pong. That is not my son. He had asthma as a child, but never exercise induced asthma.
That night I found an article about State Senator Manchin. He set up an email for those in West Virginia who wanted testing and couldn’t get access. I wrote him, telling him that I know that the Eastern Panhandle, with all the people who commuted to DC, Virginia, and Maryland had the virus. I told him that Ben could have it and he needed testing so we could warn the other students, teachers and community members.
The next day, I got an email and a call from a person in his office. Terry told me that Ben would be on a special list of people approved for testing. She told me to be patient and wait for the call. I was thrilled! Ben was thrilled, because I was making good on my promise.
While we waited for “the call” his fever continued to come and go. A family member called to ask if we were still coming to New England for Spring Break. I told her no, Ben may have the virus and it was not a good time to travel with so many cases of the virus everywhere. She said, “He doesn’t have the coronavirus. He has a cold. He is a kid. Kids get a mild case anyway, no worse than the flu.”
Some people on social media and around the community joked about the virus, and still socialized despite warnings. Not everyone was taking it seriously. I have friends who are immunocompromised, and a group of church friends and secret sisters who are all older, and I had a sick son. So, I decided what other people think is none of my business. Let them think I was crazy; I knew my son and trust my gut—and so we self-quarantined and practiced social distancing, carrying gloves with us if we had to go to the doctor’s.
I was busy trying to solve some new life problems: how to get more toilet paper and other items in Charles Town, with the aid of my neighbors and friends, since we could not go into the store.
I was exhausted and on home quarantine and I longed for simple things: coffee with a friend, being able to go to church in person, shopping for clothes. Most of all, I longed for my son to get better.
Thursday, I heard from Angie Walsh from Senator Manchin’s office. She said Ben was on an alphabetical list of 100 West Virginia people approved and waiting for testing, and that a medical professional would call. The one concern she said, was that he would need a referral and Ben’s pediatrician was out of state.
Friday came. No call. It was almost 48 hours. My neighbor encouraged me to speak up. I was trying to be patient in case others were sicker. I finally broke down and called the Ms. Walsh from Manchin’s office, who gave me the number of the WVU Medicine drive-thru phone number.
I spoke to a nurse, Melanie Sakacsi, at the WVU Medical Center in Morgantown. I told her we were on the “list” of special exceptions from Manchin. At first, she was concerned that his pediatrician was out-of-state, and they needed an in-state referral from a doctor. I worried about insurance, and the fact that we had no in-state doctor to go to.
When I described Ben’s cough, the fever that came and went, the shortness of breath — she said, “He has all the symptoms. I will get him tested. I will refer him myself.”
I felt complete joy: finally, someone who not only believed me, but who was willing to take immediate action. She asked if I could make it to Morgantown by 4 p.m. She said I could wait until Saturday, but they were “running out of test swabs” due to a shortage.
“Yes. We will be there by 4 p.m.!” I promised. “Wait? How far is Morgantown from Charles Town?”
We jumped into the car, drove the almost 3-hour trip, and were met by a guard who found Ben’s name on a list. He directed us down a long path of orange cones that led to a tent. Another guard checked our name again. We proceed into the tent. Two women, dressed in what appeared to be “medical” space suits, were covered head to toe with plastic masks.
“Wow!” said Ben. “It looks like an end-of-the-world movie.”
Indeed. They tested him and gave me papers to look up the results in 4 days. It took 2 minutes and we were off.
Many people asked me questions. Some, I have answer to, like: Why did we have to go to Morgantown to get testing? Currently, that is the only place that can test children in West Virginia. Adults have more test sites. Another one was, “Why did you get Ben tested if most cases are mild in children?”
That one is easy. First, he is my son. Majority of child cases are said to be mild. What if his wasn’t? His father and I didn’t want to take that chance. Plus, Ben has come in contact with everyone we love in the area. Not just our friends, our family, our church members, our schools—but our community. We love everyone and want to protect them—especially the ones most vulnerable who have immune issues or are elderly.
Other questions were harder to answer: Why was it so hard to get Ben tested? Why did you have to write to a state senator to get permission? Why is there a shortage of test kits? Why are we running out of test swabs? And what is Manchin’s political stance?
I don’t have answers to those questions. As far is Manchin’s politics are concerned, I don’t care. I told a friend, “This is not a political disease, it is indiscriminate and crosses party lines. This is a human disease, and I will take help for my family from whoever offers it.”
I hang on to hope. I look for the positive: the time with my kids; the families I see walking together in the neighborhood; the beauty of nature all around us; the friends and neighbors who are shopping for us and praying for us and each other. The kindness and faith that binds us together as a community, a state and a nation.
I pray that everyone stays safe and stay six feet apart and takes this virus seriously. I pray for more masks for our state, our nation. I pray for more medical supplies. What will next weeks bring? Next month? This year? I don’t know. All I know is, in one week, suddenly our lives are changed forever.