My mother works as a laboratory technician at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. She runs tests on blood samples to help doctors diagnose diseases such as cancer, HIV, and diabetes. Her 10-hour days are demanding; she must remain focused so as not to make any mistakes, and then she communicates with doctors and nurses about her findings.
Before the pandemic, she always managed to make time for my brother and me on her days off. We often danced and exercised together in our living room. Or we’d just talk and laugh and reminisce.
My earliest memories are with my mother exploring Egypt, Washington D.C., and Ethiopia. Or shopping together in Manhattan, and attending Six Flags. We are so close that we often sleep together.
My mother is my best friend and a role model. I admire her for maintaining an optimistic, bubbly personality even after overcoming so many challenges as a child growing up in Ethiopia, and then emigrating here to the U.S. She puts a smile on my face because a smile is always glued on hers.
Rooms Packed with Sick Patients
But since the pandemic, my jubilant mother is slowly unraveling into a traumatized and frightened being.
Now, when she enters the hospital, she is required to take her temperature. Then she has to put on heavy medical clothes, including a long plastic cap covering her entire face, gloves, and an N-95 mask.
It is excruciatingly hot for her to wear all this all day. At the end of every day, her face has deep marks from the N-95 masks pressing on it for so long.
Before the pandemic, her results would vary; the blood of patients was positive or negative for different diseases. But these days, so many blood samples test positive for the same disease, COVID-19. This is emotionally draining for her.
When she must leave the lab to talk to doctors about her findings, she passes rooms reading “COVID PATIENTS ONLY.” She takes a glance and sees the space packed with ill patients who appear on the verge of death and doctors with worried facial expressions.
What’s more, when she passes rooms with non-COVID patients, she sees people who look like they do not receive much treatment. The patients wait in their hospital beds while many doctors are occupied in other rooms with COVID patients. One of her coworkers, for example, was receiving treatments for back pain that allowed her to work. But now that has rarely been possible and she was out of work for 17 days.
While I’ve read that conditions at other hospitals are improving, my mom tells me that is not yet the case at Montefiore. When entering and leaving the hospital, she encounters a truck designated to store the dead bodies.
With funeral gatherings forbidden, hospital workers wrap the bodies with special paper to store in the truck. Eventually they will be buried or cremated.
Her lunch time is no longer a time for her to unwind, freely laugh, and chat with her coworkers in their lunchroom. Recently some colleagues tested positive for the virus and although they recovered from it, my mother insists on distancing herself from them.
So my mother eats in the staircase and disinfects the floor and the chair. She says it is the only empty space she can find where she feels safe.
Scared to Lose My Mom
Since all her days look like this, she comes home paranoid and exhausted. She cannot even fake a smile. When there is an opportunity for her to spend time with my brother and me, she mostly uses that time to sleep. My positive attitude revolved around my mother, so seeing her like this has been upsetting.
We live in Co-op City in the Bronx which is listed at number eight among New York neighborhoods with the highest coronavirus death rates. Overall, the Bronx is the hardest hit borough, so while other hospitals may have improved conditions, my mother tells me the conditions at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx still deteriorate. I am petrified knowing she runs a greater risk of catching the virus than people who may live and work elsewhere.
Thinking about life without my mother brings tears to my eyes because she is the only person I have in this world to take care of me. She is my only family in America. It is just me, my brother, and my mother in this crazy world.
Thinking of life without her is scary because my brother and I could end up homeless. I rely on my mother so much. I need her to stay strong no matter what, but when I have to accept that my mother is not some invincible Marvel character, but a human being, I get extremely worried.