It was 11 years ago tomorrow that my mother went into the hospital for the last time. She had not been feeling well, and when my wife and I went over to visit, she told us that she couldn’t get out of bed. We called 911. My mother initially refused to go to the hospital, but the paramedics got her to agree to go if her family doctor agreed that she should. They called him, he said yes, and they took her to the hospital.
It turned out she had a respiratory infection. She had developed pneumonia, and it was hitting her 88-year-old body very hard. They gave her supplemental oxygen right away, and eventually they put her on BIPAP, which is a kind of external respirator mask with air pumps that help people breath. That seemed to stabilizer her for a while, but she had developed other problems, and her condition began to decline. She passed away a few days later.
I dealt with the grief the way everyone does, but from time to time, a certain nagging thought went through my brain…
At her age, my mother had a lot of trouble walking. So my wife and I would run errands and help take care of some things for her, and she had other people who would do grocery shopping and help with the housework. With all of us coming in to help, she almost never left the house.
So how did she catch a respiratory infection? Those tiny little microbes and viral particles can’t travel very far by themselves. Whatever it was that she caught didn’t just drift by her building and blow in the window for her to inhale. As we all know by now from listening to the news about Covid-19, respiratory infections are transferred by contact, or at least close proximity, with another person who is already infected.
In other words, my mother didn’t just catch the disease that killed her. One of us gave it to her.
It would be an overstatement to say I’m haunted by this, but I do think about it now and again. I tell myself it probably wasn’t me. My wife and I had been careful not to visit my parents when either of us had a cold. But even if she caught the bug from one of us, I realized that nobody actually did hospital-grade infection control for ordinary visits with elderly people. So even if I accidentally did give my mother the disease that killed her, it’s not like I was being reckless. I was doing normal things that normal people did in normal times. Unless we wanted to permanently isolate our elderly friends and relatives from all human contact, or wear masks and gloves every time we visited, these things were just going to happen sometimes. Life is filled with risks, and many of them are worth taking.
But these are not normal times, and we are facing more than normal levels of risk. You don’t want to end up knowing you gave someone a fatal infection. So please be careful out there.