So much for the plan of blogging every day of this international filet-o-fuck known as the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d like to say that I’ve spent the time valiantly cruising from one death scene to the next, staring intently into the deceased patient’s face and shaking my head as I say something terribly poignant like: “It’s claimed another soul! Damn this disease! We must prevail! We must stand fast in the face of such adversity! The burden of civilization falls to us!”
You know, something like Dustin Hoffman from “Outbreak”
But let’s be honest. I’ve been playing “Fishdom” on my phone, eating leftover Easter candy and showering roughly every 9 days. I don’t know how everyone else’s pandemic is turning out, but mine is looking less like “Outbreak” and more like “Groundhog Day”.
Seriously, the days are seeping together like stains- a mess that just gets weirder and weirder. And it all has this vague, parasomnia-quality. Like, I keep expecting all of us to wake up from this sweaty, fevered hallucination. We’ll all glance around us as we rub the goop from our eyes and say, “Woah, I had the strangest dream… and YOU were there… and YOU were there… except we only spoke over FaceTime and Zoom and The Great and Powerful OZ looked remarkably like a stale Cheeto.”
Until then, there are clever memes about toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Everyone is making jokes about the sad state of their personal hygiene. Most of my friends are leading at-home work-outs in their living room or posting videos of themselves playing the guitar and asking for cyber tips via Venmo. Every small business that has ever gotten my email address has come around, passing the virtual bucket in the name of preserving mom-and-pop culture. And I’m just now noticing that my toenails look like something you’d see on a 3000 year old mummy.
It’s almost funny.
Except it’s not. Like so many other things in life- and death- the thin gloss of humor really doesn’t do much to obscure how truly fucking disturbing all of this is. But not because of the disease, rather the way everyone has reacted to it.
First of all, I’d like to say that I haven’t seen a single COVID death. Not one. I know everyone thought there would be bodies, littering the streets like it was the fucking dark ages or Mardi Gras or something. But that’s not the case. At least not in my town. Although my jurisdiction has a known body count of 55, I haven’t laid eyes on a one of them.
But that’s not to say that COVID hasn’t considerably complicated my job.
First of all, there’s the fire department… there’s always the fire department.
They continue to utterly baffle all of us with their inexplicable logic and propensity to do whatever they fuck they want.
For starters, they are constantly diagnosing dead people with COVID-19. They arrive at the scene of a death, and although they have been told that their job in this environment is to simply pronounce the person dead, that doesn’t stop them from popping off their uninformed theories like fire-crackers and then leaving everyone else to deal with the aftermath of their behavior. The concept of object permanence is a complete mystery- they just can’t seem to grasp that everyone else continues to exist despite their departure. And they can’t fathom the possibility that they’ve done anything wrong or that they’ve left a mess that someone else has to clean up. American Society has been thoroughly trained into believing everything that the fire department says, and that belief is so entrenched in our culture that the firemen, themselves, believe it too. And never is this more apparent than when one of our local heroes proclaims that a deceased person clearly died of the coronavirus (when they didn’t). The medical examiner’s office starts getting calls from the deceased’s terrified family members who are all suddenly certain of their own impending demise. Then we get calls from panicky funeral directors whose employees are refusing to touch the body. Then the family calls back saying that the funeral home won’t let any of them come to view the body for fear of infection or transmission. Then the whole neighborhood starts calling because they saw the fire-department suit up like they were going to the goddamned moon to enter the dead person’s house… then the fire department came back out again, saying the death was due to the virus. A single offhanded comment can, literally, create hours of completely unnecessary work for the on-duty medical examiner: soothing and explaining and requesting and persuading- all in an effort to convince the public that even though the fire department “said so”. The stiff in question was not exhibiting COVID symptoms, nor were they at any significant risk for infection.
Of course that’s just one angle. There’s another problem with supply and demand- yet another issue of which the fire department is completely ignorant. You may have heard there’s a PPE (personal protective equipment) shortage: Not enough masks, not enough gloves, not enough ANYTHING. The concept of “not enough” is utterly foreign to the FD because they are, historically, so well funded that they’ve never had to go without ANYTHING. Well, the other day I was on the phone with a police officer who casually informed me that the fire department had rolled up on the scene of the death and started passing out surgical masks to EVERYONE there- I mean the decedent’s family, the neighbors, the people out walking their dogs…
Now, let’s remember that right now- there is a NATIONAL SHORTAGE. I have some friends who are Emergency Room doctors. They are being issued one mask per DAY. And here we have the good-ol’ FD showering people with PPE like it’s fucking confetti at a 4th of July parade. Then, the same day, I had a fireman at a scene ask me to re-supply him with Tyvekk suits… I stared at him in disbelief. We are perpetually the underfunded and forgotten step-child of Health and Human Services. If the medical examiner’s office has supplies, it’s because we stole them from another department in the middle of the night. Having the fire department ask us for anything is like the goddamned CEO of Amazon asking a homeless person for spare change. Seriously.
Apart from these new-and-improved COVID-related blunders, they’re still up to their usual idiocy. On my last shift I had a woman who allegedly commit suicide by hanging herself in her garage. The fire department cut her down before either law-enforcement or I could get there. Then, upon realizing that she was actually dead, figured that the best way to preserve the scene and all the associated evidence was to string her back up in a rough approximation of how they found her. Meaning that if it didn’t look like a homicide before… it sure as fuck did now.
I could go on and on…
But the fact is, I get it. We’re all kind of losing our shit.
Whenever the police call me with a new death, we have this strange approximation of a debate as to what they’re supposed to do. While it’s their job to investigate deaths along with me, we’re not exactly sure how they’re supposed to do it. They tell me that their marching orders are to wear disposable scrubs and shoe covers and eye-protection and masks and gloves on the scene of a death, but then they’re not actually issued any of these items. Or they only have one of each item and they’re not sure they want to burn through their PPE on a death scene when they have a whole shift to go, no back-up supplies and anything could happen…
And that’s the real struggle… anything could happen.
I watched a movie recently in which one of the characters asks, “You know what’s the scariest part of a roller-coaster? It’s the waiting in line.”
As Tom Petty astutely observed, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part…”
And I think that’s right. It’s not the fight for survival that’s eating all of us alive, it’s the waiting to fight for survival. When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was almost a relief compared to the previous 5 years of confused doctors, vague guesses and the bottomlessness of the question- what the hell was wrong with me? It was a relief to have the adversary dragged into the light where I could see it. At least now I knew what I was fighting.
Much the same way, here, at Health and Human Services, at the police department, at the fire department- we’re bracing for an impact that really seems to be taking it’s sweet fucking time getting here. We’re laser focused and efficient as a bullet when the shit hits the fan, but when we’re stuck waiting for the shit to get thrown at the fan in the first place, we lose our goddamned minds. We’re waiting for the virus to kick in the door of our county and start grabbing people by the throat. We’re waiting for the self-quarantine to boil over into domestic violence, assaults and overdoses. We’re waiting for the economic shut-down to detonate into riots and suicides. We know that the universe just threw a hand grenade into the crowded building known as earth, and now we’re just waiting for it to go off… Waiting… Waiting… Maybe it’s a dud? Maybe he forgot to pull the pin? Maybe the worst is over?
Maybe it hasn’t even started?
Or maybe it’s a gag… the biggest joke the universe ever played on the human race. Guess what? The disease isn’t half as scary as our bumbling buffoonery in reaction to it. I’m not half as scared of the coronavirus as I am of all the under-informed, untrained, paranoid lunatics who went running out and bought guns when the pandemic went down.
Either way, we’re going to have to wade into it and fight, regardless of how many latex gloves we’ve got between us. I just wish it would hurry up and reveal itself. I’m tired of wondering which direction the explosion is going to come from. Or if it’s coming at all…
So I guess that’s where we’re at this week, all gloved-up and nowhere to go…
Waiting to fight for survival…
In line for the roller-coaster.