Only the Lonely | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Only the Lonely 

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My mom was a registered nurse for nearly 50 years. She retired two years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. One of her first jobs was working as a nurse's aide at a rest home in rural Alabama where she remembers wiping brown streams of chewing tobacco-tinged drool from the faces of old women who were too weak or disoriented to clean their own faces. My mom told me many touching, cringeworthy and funny stories throughout her career. As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, there is one patient from my mom's long career whom I think of quite often, an anonymous person that I know of as the "Unknown Patient."

There isn't much I know about the Unknown Patient. I don't know her name, or her age. I don't know what she looked like. I don't even know the city where her story unfolded—since my mom practiced nursing in a few different states. The only thing I know for sure about the Unknown Patient is how she died.

The Unknown Patient was a transgender woman who died of what we now know as the AIDS virus in the late 1970s. According to my mom, a great many medical professionals were afraid of this new disease. Instead of offering their patients compassion, many doctors and nurses mocked and judged AIDS patients. For some practitioners, it was easier to have a mean-spirited laugh at the nurse's station than to embrace the horror of a new disease that was slowly but steadily filling up ICUs across the country.

My mom told me that the Unknown Patient was one of the loneliest she had ever cared for. No one came to visit her. No one inquired about how she was. Her family had abandoned her. Many nurses and doctors made barbed comments about her gender and status as a patient languishing with a frightening new disease that the medical establishment knew so little about.

The mental image of my mom—in full PPE, in the isolation wing of the hospital—holding the Unknown Patient's hand never fails to make me cry. My mom thought it was so important to reach out to her and remind her that somebody did indeed care about her. I never met the Unknown Patient, but I feel like I know her. My mom and I have discussed her fate so many times. The Unknown Patient always inspires me to extend my heart to the loneliest people.

I have thought of the Unknown Patient so often during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals all around the world are full of lonely Unknown Patients. COVID-19 does not have the same stigma that AIDS did in the early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, COVID-19 is just as isolating. There are countless people who were struggling with devastating life stresses that plagued them prior to pandemic who are now languishing in isolation, struggling to breathe.

I think of the Unknown Patient whenever I read the latest COVID-19 statistics. I think of my mom holding that forsaken soul's hand. I think about all the nurses worldwide—like my younger sister, who followed in my mom's footsteps—who work tirelessly to care for COVID patients. It has occurred to me that the difference between the early days of the AIDS pandemic and now is that a great many nurses probably don't have time to hold their patient's hands—even if they wanted to—because most major hospitals are so overloaded. During the COVID pandemic, a staggering number of Unknown Patients have died alone.

The Unknown Patient taught me that we must care about each other. If we are to live in a truly just, humane world—we must think of the well-being of people outside of our immediate orbit. In November, my sister contracted COVID from her work as a nurse. She urged those who inquired about her health to think of the loneliest among us. Every nurse knows that there are many people without a robust support system. Perhaps someone who's a transplant recently moved to a new city to advance their career, or another whose spouse has died or they work long hours at a job that's not conducive to making friends. COVID is especially punishing for those who are forced to recover without community or family support.

In recent weeks, we've had some promising news about the pandemic. Multiple vaccines appear to be highly effective against it. More and more people are getting vaccinated around the world every day. But the pandemic is far from over. Many vulnerable people are still susceptible to infection. Countless service workers who have direct contact with the public every day have yet to be vaccinated. The poorest among us are buckling under crushing economic stress that leave them uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of COVID.

We are one year into this atrocious pandemic. We're cranky, emotionally exhausted and ready to get on with our lives. The next time you feel oppressed by a pandemic restriction, I urge to think of my mom holding the hand of the Unknown Patient in the ICU. Multiply that image by hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Aside from keeping our loved ones safe—we should think of the Unknown Patients of the world. By wearing masks, socially distancing, washing our hands, avoiding crowds and getting the COVID vaccine, we can unite to protect the loneliest and most vulnerable among us. In honor of the Unknown Patient, may we all work together to empty the COVID wards so that far fewer people die alone in the isolation wing of the hospital.

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About The Author

Jenny Poplar

Jenny Poplar is both a dancer and a frequent City Weekly contributor.

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