We take COVID-19 seriously — though actually having to lead with that statement, amid a pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 of our fellow Americans in just four months, is disheartening. Like many of the subject matters of today, this virus has become politically polarized in the most unhealthy ways possible. 


I don’t feel particularly adept at talking about myself. Most of my career focuses on telling the stories of others, and my preference will likely always be to keep it that way. But at the encouragement of friends, family, peers and, most importantly, my wife, I’ll make an exception this time; not out of vanity or affectation, rather, with the hope that it might be useful in some way. 


March 11 began the most anxious season of my entire life. My wife, Mallory, was little more than a month in front of her due date with our firstborn when, on that fateful Wednesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that Arkansas had confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in the state. We were already wrestling with the usual suspects of new-parent nervousness – a pandemic was far from a distress we expected would be added to the mix. 


After Arkansas’ patient zero was announced, followed by dozens more and the eventual soft shutdown of the entire state, we began to have a lot of difficult conversations that we never thought we’d be forced into having. Instead of planning for the excitement of our son’s arrival into the world, eagerly wondering how many family members we could fit into a hospital waiting room, dialogue instead focused on when we would even feel comfortable having visitors to our home at all. New regulations to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 into hospitals meant that I was the only allowed visitor for the duration of the patients’ (my wife and son) stay, required to wear a mask at all times. 


Mallory pushed nearly all day on that 23rd day of April (a week past her original due date), but he was positioned in such a way that a traditional delivery was not in the cards for us, a fitting motif for how we already felt. Finally, we made the decision with our doctor to move forward with an immediate C-section that night. Instead of a room full of loving eyes welcoming Ledger into the world, it was an operating room of masked-up strangers. His first glimpse of me, his father who had so anxiously awaited his arrival into the world, was only from the eyes up as my face was also covered by cloth. 


I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw him. His cries of first breath were weak, his body a tint closer to blue than seemed natural. The medical staff took him over to the corner of the room for some time, huddled around him and spoke at hushed levels that we couldn’t quite hear. Finally, the news was dropped on our shoulders. Something was, in fact, wrong. His oxygen levels were critically low. He would be taken to the NICU. 


Ledger in the NICU incubator after being put on oxygen.


We were able to visit him briefly that night before we were ushered to our post-partum room. He was in an incubator with more cords surrounding his body than I could count, but the oxygen they’d fed him brought his color back, at least. 


“Your son has a collapsed lung,” I remember the nurse telling us. That’s where, for both me and my wife, the memories become fuzzy. We were told that they would first attempt to pump oxygen into his lung(s) to see if his body was capable of regenerating on its own. If not, there were a couple different procedures that could be done, one more invasive than the other. 


Dustin and Mallory spending their first brief moments with Ledger after hearing the news of his collapsed lung.


The emotions of the moment fully set in when we arrived at our room, a place we would spend the next five days without our son. We called our families to relay the news, our voices broken by tears so much that the words could barely get out. Texting became an appreciated ally.


For the duration of his stay, only one of us was allowed to go downstairs to visit him per day; on Mallory’s days, she could frequent back and forth multiple times, on my days, I was only allowed one visit per day. Naturally, the decision was easy to give Mallory my “turns” for the first few days. Facetime also became a fond friend, as that was the only way the three of us could be with each other at the same time.


That’s where the bad news stopped, fortunately. I’m not sure how much more we could have taken; the last-minute curveballs of a respiratory-attacking virus setting sight on the world, a disappointing false-labor visit to the hospital on April 15, nearly a full day of actual labor on April 23 that turned into a C-section, followed by the spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung) news was more than we had bargained for. Within a day, our son’s supplied oxygen was decreased from a consistency of 90 percent to 30 (we breathe air at 21 percent oxygen). Within a week, we walked inside our home with him in our arms for the first time. At that, we feel supremely blessed. Each of us knows parents who’ve had to endure much more extended NICU stays than we did. In retrospect, part of me feels bad even putting ours forward for comparison. There are far more powerful, inspiring and emotional stories of childbirth and perseverance than ours. We are lucky. 


But that’s not what this is about, for as long-winded as I have been in arriving at the point. We feel that our story is less about those five days and more so the days that have followed, like many of our kindred spirits who have also welcomed life into the world this year. 


Even now, almost three months later, Ledger probably has spent more cumulative time with the nursing staff of Baptist Hospital during those days in the NICU than anyone else — other than my wife and I, obviously, and my mother-in-law. Those have been extremely difficult decisions to make and even tougher conversations to have with our families who love us, and him, dearly. When the limited visitations do occur, we continue to require masks of almost everyone, no matter how close in blood the relation is. 


Ledger on June 23, his 2-month milestone.


That wasn’t always the intention. The first couple of weeks were a no-brainer on our residential mask ordinance, but even we didn’t think we’d still be here in July. But the cases of COVID-19 continue to skyrocket in Arkansas; with that grows our uneasiness. 


This is most of why we feel an increased irritation with those who make light of this novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes the deadly disease of COVID-19. Don’t get me wrong, the largely baseless anti-science sentiments would anger us either way, but that fire of frustration is fueled even more by our journey. 


This coronavirus attacks respiratory systems; our son’s was only in half-operation at birth. Though he has not shown any complications since his lung healed in the NICU, it is something that our pediatrician will continue to monitor regularly for at least one year. We’ve been given strict orders to rush him to an emergency room at the first sign of irregular breathing. Our determination to not get infected and thus infect him will assuredly always be our most primary priority. This affects almost every decision that we make on a daily basis. 


As it should. We try not to feel like we’re in the minority of actually caring about this virus, although some days that is harder than others. It’s dispiriting to read some of the emotionless ways that others regard this pandemic. Presumably, everyone has a “Ledger” in their life — someone whom they love who would be embattled to the point of hospitalization, or worse, if infected. When people cackle at our caution or poke fun at our plight, it’s honestly pretty offensive. I won’t apologize for caring about people other than myself; I’d prefer to regard it as a strength, not a weakness. 


Misinformation has run rampant, probably one of the major causes behind why the United States continues to struggle with increases in transmission, while most of the world has, for the most part, held COVID-19 at bay. Some struggle with the understanding of why this is such a big deal. I don’t dismiss those questions on their face — infectious diseases and outbreak responses are part of the complicated web that is public health. But, often the same people asking the questions disregard the answers given by the scientists, epidemiologists and other experts who have studied and trained in the subject for years, instead preferring to engage cognitive dissonance in their hives. Trust is misdirected toward talking heads and politicians who mistake COVID-19 as the “19th COVID,” rather than the actual meaning of the moniker, which stands for the year 2019. 


“Why are we scared of a virus that only has a 1-2 percent death rate,” I’ve heard some of the popular pundits posit. Listeners have redirected that into a misunderstanding of how statistics work, insinuating that, because of the death rate, they might purport themselves a 98 percent chance of survival. That’s not how any of this works. If I said that the average three-point-shot percentage in the NBA was 33 percent, that doesn’t mean that every professional basketball player has a 33 percent chance of making a jump shot behind the three-point line. Some, like today’s Steph Curry or yesterday’s Reggie Miller, have greater odds than that; others, like Shaquille O’Neal, are going to be much lower. Further, in public health, a 1 to 2 percent death rate for a virus is extremely high, especially in this world of modern technology. The seasonal flu has a death rate of around 0.1 percent and the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic was about the same. The difference between 0.1 and 1 or 2 is hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions when all of this is said and done. Around 12,000 people died from swine flu in the U.S. in one year; more than 130,000 have died from COVID-19 in barely four months. Many more (not just the elderly or immunocompromised) have been hospitalized and might battle the wreckage that this virus left their bodies in for months, years or the rest of their lives. 



Some tout individual rights as an argument against taking precautions, perhaps even adding that those “statistics” in at-risk demographics should stay home — giving up their own rights — so the rest of us can have fun. I don’t find that particularly empathetic, fair or useful. Further, your “right” to not wear a mask might very well infect an essential worker with an immunocompromised loved one at home. 


Sometimes, our individual rights may be minorly infringed upon for the greater good: The right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I would opine that seatbelt laws and the requirement to have liability insurance on your vehicle when driving on a public road are pretty closely related to mask ordinances. They keep you and everyone else around you safer than not. Moreover, if I might get in the weeds, I don’t see any reference to the “right” to not wear a mask anywhere in our country’s doctrine. 


And pointing out that masks are not 100 percent effective is not a “mic drop” or a “dunk” on the cause. Realistically, face coverings have been shown to be about 50-70 percent effective at reducing COVID-19 transmission, depending on which study one is looking at. They aren’t perfect, but they are very useful — and the best option we have right now.


Understand, this negligible inconvenience doesn’t have to last forever. If we can get our viral reproduction rate to below one (meaning, every person who is infected transmits the virus to less than one other person, on average), our case counts will in turn begin to decline and, with luck, stay valleyed. Masks are the best way to accomplish that without having to bunker down in our homes again. If we do, my son can see his family more regularly and maybe actually begin to recognize their faces. Others might be able to finally visit their family members in nursing homes, or simply feel comfortable visiting their parents or loved ones with underlying conditions at home. Children can go back to attending school in person. The un- or under-employed can return to work. We can prevent our hospitals from overflowing so they can continue helping everyone who desperately needs medical attention. More simply, people can begin feeling safer when conducting every part of their daily lives. 


If you are a regular mask wearer and know someone who isn’t, it’s probably more effective to approach those instances with a softer touch. As Julia Marcus, epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, says, “In practice, if Americans are going to mask up, public-health officials will have to cajole, not compel … trying to shame people into healthier behavior generally doesn’t work — and actually can make things worse.”


I’ve never been a fan of the saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” but that seems as apt as any for this moment. Until a vaccine, there will likely be no “normal” life, but simply taking this moment seriously by social distancing and fashioning a mask over your face can ensure we are all able to do normal-ish things until then. Phase 3 of reopening is still a distant goal for us in Arkansas. But we can get there if we work together.


You don’t have to make a choice between A or B; it’s not shut down or open the flood gates. We can meet in the middle. You don’t have to live in fear, but there’s a lot of difference between apathy and caution, negligence and panic. If you are scared, don’t let others shame you for it. It’s OK — I’m scared, too. 


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in op-eds are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of AY About You or About You Media Group.

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