We Quarantined for Thanksgiving. You Can, Too.
Last year for Thanksgiving my husband and I, along with our son, didn’t have our usual celebration with friends. The house was quiet, there was no buzz of activity, no greeting of guests, no counters full of aromatic dishes people had brought. In 2019, we had a quarantine Thanksgiving.
I’d like to tell you about it for one reason: We isolated on Thanksgiving and so can you. As rates of coronavirus infection are on the uptick in conjunction with the growing fatigue of using mitigation efforts and there is no end in sight, I am truly nervous about what will happen this November 26 through January 1. People are tired of it; participation enthusiasm is waning. I get it. At the same time, I will be blunt: I don’t think you should visit your friends and your families this Thanksgiving and holiday season. (Experts on infectious diseases don’t think you should, either.) I don’t think you should carry on as normal. This man just wanted to have a small family get-together and look what happened. We have not done what was necessary to get out ahead of this virus so a return to normalcy has been pushed further and further back. I know you are tired of virus spread mitigation efforts. I am, too. Do you think anyone isn’t?
Before the Thanksgiving of 2019, my husband and I would usually gather with dozens of friends for our annual vegan celebration. Since the mid-1990s, we have enjoyed this kind of Thanksgiving, and it has always been one of our favorite days of the year, full of great food and lively conversations with friends all smashed together for an animated, lovely meal that lasted for hours. Last year, though, we spent the holiday alone, cloistered in our home.
After washing the dishes, I scrolled my Facebook feed, looking at the photos and vivid descriptions of the warm gatherings my friends posted, many of the same people we’d enjoyed Thanksgivings with in the past. It was a sad and lonely time, far from the celebration a year before. I felt so isolated.
We hadn’t been shunned. We didn’t fall out with anyone. We didn’t become hermits, well, at least not of our own choosing.
We were quarantining.
Months before there was any hint of the impending toilet paper shortages, before I’d ever heard of the concept of a “super-spreader event” or considered wearing a mask for any occasion except Halloween, our household had begun a period of prolonged isolation. By Thanksgiving, we were just over a month into it. Just a year prior, we had no idea what was around the corner. If I could have looked into a crystal ball, I would have run for the hills.
Let’s just say we were masking up and socially distancing before it was a thing.
In late October of last year, my husband checked into Loyola Medical Center outside of Chicago to receive a bone marrow transplant. It was the culmination of eight months of a dizzying array of medications, doctor’s appointments, treatments and hospitalizations preparing him for it. John had been diagnosed with a sudden, aggressive case of acute lymphoblastic leukemia on the last day of February of 2019 and the transplant was the culmination of getting to a place considered free and clear.
As transplants go, a bone marrow transplant is a surprisingly low-key affair, at least on the surface: A nurse simply hangs a small bag of donor stem cells from the patient’s IV pole and they drip into a catheter that then delivers the cells to the patient for building new, healthy blood in their bone marrow. It’s so laid-back as to be almost anti-climactic. The whole transplant process takes between 45 minutes to an hour and it happens right in their hospital room, not in an operating room. Unlike other transplants, there was no surgical removal of anything, no scalpels or other glinting instruments, no surgical gowns or sutures. I was lucky in that it was in the pre-COVID era and I could visit John for hours every day with just the regular germ-spreading precautions.
At the same time, a bone marrow transplant is also far more complicated and intricate than just a bag of stem cells dripping into a waiting body. For one, donor cells with the highest likelihood of being a good match must be found, no small feat, and everything must be coordinated with the utmost of precision between hospitals. Once the most compatible match was found and this person agreed to be a donor, in order for the new stem cells to be accepted, my husband’s old marrow had to be effectively cancelled out through a strenuous cancer-elimination regimen.
Just as a bone marrow transplant is far more complicated than it might appear on the surface, so is getting someone from a transplant to safely on the other side of it. Because my husband’s immune response had to be effectively cancelled out so as to accept the new cells without a fight, he was highly vulnerable to serious complications. Serious complications to this kind of transplant are the norm rather than the exception and it is all relative. His immune system was null and void. What might be a common cold to the average person else can turn into a life-threatening pneumonia on someone as immunocompromised as he was. Thus once the patient — my husband — was released from the hospital after four weeks or so, as germ-free as possible an environment needed to be maintained in the home following the transplant to keep him safe until he reached the 100-day mark, which is considered not so much a magic number as when the immune system is stronger.
No visitors. No socializing. Friends wanted to drop off food but we couldn’t accept it due to the risk of accidental food poisoning. As much as John needed to remain free of illness, as his caregiver, so did I. So did our son. We began what one friend called a period of hibernation. That makes it sound cozy and relaxing, something a big brown bear family does in a picture book.
It was neither.
Despite the challenge and intimidation of our quarantine period, we knew personally how lucky we were just to be able to get a transplant. Many people don’t get that far.
Once my husband was home in early November, it was time to protect him from any possible germ for what felt like a marathon of 100 days, something that seemed much more do-able in a hospital setting.
If I could have swathed him in bubble wrap, I would have.
We were fortunate enough to have clearance from John’s doctor to keep our animals in the home, but the cats — in and out of litter boxes, a big hazard — had to be sequestered in my son’s room like Cathy and Chris from the V.C. Andrews soap series. Our dog had to have his paws wiped off after every walk, but, again, we were lucky to have not had to find a new temporary home for him. Our son, 17 at the time, would come home from school, take off his shoes and clothes right inside the door, grab a robe hanging nearby — in the winter, as a teen, oh, the joys — throw the day’s clothes in a nearby laundry basket and take a shower immediately. Speaking of showers, every towel had to be washed after every use. The bed sheets needed to be changed three or four times a week. Every meal had to be made in our own kitchen. Every surface had to be as clean as possible. Fun times when you’re already overwhelmed as a caregiver.
My husband’s strict quarantine period ended on January 29, 2020, just in time for the rolling out of this strange new virus that had emerged from a wet market in Wuhan, China.
As our household’s medical quarantine ended, the global pandemic picked up the baton and ran with it.
The habits I had learned in my pre-transplant caregiver class — get out of the habit of touching your face; soap is better than sanitizer but keep sanitizer with you just in case; order groceries online if you can but if you must shop, go during off-hours and so on — didn’t need to be dusted off. I merely rolled up my sleeves and did more of the same. As I read about the coronavirus and continued doing what I’d been doing, I just adapted to a few new aspects, mainly about masks and being prepared for the hoarding mentality. (Not to be dismissive, but lockdowns are way easier than medical quarantines.)
Our quarantine Thanksgiving, barely a month post-transplant, was just how it sounds: quiet, a little sad, underwhelming, a reverse-image from previous ones. On all days of the year, my oven broke on Thanksgiving Day — a fitting cap to the year — so all my plans to fill this feeling of loss and anxiety in my gut with casseroles and pie were dashed. All I could do was shrug it off and make-do with our stove-top and Instant Pot.
It was depressing but I wouldn’t have it any other way given the circumstance because it was a necessary means to an end: A healthy outcome for my husband. No outside germs. No infections. No anxieties. If my husband made it through this time that is often fraught with medical emergencies, we would celebrate Thanksgiving extra in 2020.
I think you know how that is working out for us. Heh.
Today, my husband is doing so well. After a pretty challenging eight months of not much progress, he is finally in a good place. We had 100 days of not seeing anyone but our son and medical professionals — a gathering with friends on Feb. 1 in the littlest of possible windows between the ending of our quarantine and the beginning of the lockdown — and other than a few outdoor, masked and distanced occasions of seeing friends and family, we just basically extended our protective practices.
We don’t love wearing masks. We miss our friends. We miss hugging loved ones. We miss celebrating together. We miss meeting up with the people who have emotionally sustained us through this difficult time in our lives. Of course we miss these things, these people, that normalcy. What is it that makes those who are tired of safety protocols think that they are unique in this? Those of us trying to not contribute to the spread have loved ones, miss being physically close, miss the old normal. No one is unique in missing these things.
This year we will once again not be having our usual boisterous Thanksgiving celebration. With my husband’s health restored, though, we will be grateful and appreciative that we can even be in this place of happily enjoying a meal together, of recognizing what we’ve overcome, of planning for the future. Instead of wallowing in self-pity as I did last year, we will make plans to see friends over video conferencing, we will call loved ones, we will enjoy our time together and be grateful that we are not sick, we are not intubated, we’re not spreading a deadly virus we don’t even realize we have.
I hope the same is for you.
Please start making your holiday plans now, and, as someone who loves an immunocompromised person but also as someone who just cares about others, please plan to celebrate in a way that will not put lives at risk and amplify the spread of this cruel virus. Figure out what you need to do to feel connected during the double whammy of the holiday season and the pandemic. Whom can you call? Whom can you visit over video? What can can you do to get your emotional needs met without endangering yourself or others? If you must see people from outside your home, how can you safely do this? Will you maintain a quarantine afterwards until you are free and clear? Will everyone else you are seeing do this?
Last year, we were just protecting my husband in this. Now we have to protect one another. As the virus is beginning to tick up again where we live, I am nervous for what will happen if people decide to further lower their guard over the holidays.
Having quarantined, I can tell you I had no secret powers or discipline other than the will for my husband to survive and that is how you have to treat this as well: As necessary for survival. If we could do it, so can you. Please keep us all safe this holiday season and beyond. Now the best time to start planning how you will do this. We are community members, after all.