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I Can’t Breathe (Poem)
by Berttila Kithia
A pandemic originated in China
The main symptom of the pandemic is not being able to breathe
Lungs connected to ventilators
Calling out your mother's name
Trying to tell her,
I can't breathe
A pandemic originated in America
The main symptom of the pandemic is not being able to breathe
Lungs crushed underneath a police man's knee
Calling out your mother's name
Trying to tell her,
I can't breathe
COVID-19, formally known as Coronavirus, has taught many people that life is truly a gift. How many people would take that gift and risk it all to save other peoples lives? As we enter this jagged stage of the unknown, we need to take time to appreciate and thank the various healthcare workers that are shielding us and are on the frontline every single day.
On April 7 th , 2020, we honored World Health Day and celebrated those who risk their lives for the citizens of Buffalo daily. Because of the uncertainty and panicked thoughts that we are currently experiencing, we acknowledged those who took time and effort to assure us that we are all in good hands. The healthcare workers that were celebrated are the ones that play a critical role in keeping all of us healthy: nurses, midwives, doctors, and all highly trained and respected medical staff throughout the various hospitals in Buffalo. On this day, my father Joseph DiLeo and a few of his co-workers (Tera DiLeo, Ron Moskala, and myself), of Mass Mutual Life Insurance-Buffalo unloaded their trucks to deliver various amounts of packaged snacks and cases of water to help fuel the system of healthcare workers at Buffalo General Hospital. As we made our way down to the hospital, one question flooded my mind and made me feel uncertain about what we were doing. “Is this really going to be enough?” As we pulled into the loading dock, a few kitchen staff and administration workers were standing there, fully equipped with masks and gloves and a big cart to wheel all of the food into the building for the workers to share. I knew right then and there that we were making the right decision.
Mass Mutual Buffalo started the caravan down the I-90 and thanked their health care workers for all that they have done. Within the week, both Mass Mutual Rochester and Syracuse will continue this and do the same by donating food and water to their local hospitals and healthcare centers and appreciate these workers for everything that they have done in the midst of this pandemic. Even in a crisis, Buffalo remains a family.
The worker bees go about their day,
Buzzing from flower to flower.
There’s beauty in all the little things, they say,
Even in your darkest hour.
But when change is upon us and our world takes a turn,
It seems as if there’s no option left, but to burn.
As we spin in circles and the flames rise higher,
All us bees can do is fly into the fire.
Pero mi cara no tocó el suelo.
No puedo ver mis dedos
A través de la oscuridad.
Los sonidos se desvanecen
Como si mente durmiese.
Estoy viva? O me he muerto?
Es la vida? O es nuevo?
Todavía me estoy cayendo?
O ya me he caído?
No sé nada
De esta realidad.
But my face didn’t touch the floor.
I can’t see my fingers
Through the darkness.
The sounds fade
As if my mind is asleep.
Am I alive? Or have I died?
Is this life? Or is this new?
Am I still falling?
Or have I already fallen?
I don’t know anything
About this reality.
The room was stale. Heavy curtains were messily draped across the windows, keeping the space as dark as my mood. I was awkwardly sprawled out across a sunken recliner. It was under the television’s irregular, dull light that the mind-numbing days blurred together, and I spent my endless hours wishing for the world to be a different place. Yet, there I restlessly laid in my grandmother’s house, longing to be home and reunited with my mother.
My mother was a physician in New York City who was called to the front lines of the microbial war. Treating patients had always been a duty for her. So, when COVID-19 reached New York, she would do everything in her capacity to save lives, even if that meant risking her own. However, the constant fear of infecting me loomed in her mind. She was torn between her essential responsibilities as a doctor and, to an even greater extent, as a mother. It was frightening enough to risk her own life, but she refused to have me become another casualty. So, she sent me to live with my grandmother until the pandemic finally abated.
I understood that I had to leave the city, but it did not make the departure any less painful. I loved the busy hustle. The sidewalks humming with energetic people, restaurants serving hot, delicious meals, and the rhythmic beats played by street performers. All of this had ended. The boulevards were now bare, restaurants empty, and only the occasional honk of a car horn echoed throughout the desolate streets. My favorite aspect of the city was the way that the towering skyscrapers illuminated the black night sky. The virus could not take that away from me. What a breathtaking sight it was. Buildings of stone and glass reaching toward the austere darkness above, shimmering brilliantly as an emblem of humanity’s triumph. This was the final view I had of my home as the train sped away from the dazzling city and headed toward the sleepy town of my grandmother.
“Faith,” my grandmother called as she walked in. “What are you doing in here, darling?” She opened the drapes, illuminating the room and revealing a mess of clothes, blankets and candy wrappers strewn across the floor. I could tell that my grandmother had become worried about me lately. She was troubled by the general air of indifference that descended upon me. “Oh darling, come outside and help your Nana. It’s just beautiful out.” With a sigh of disinterest and exhaustion, I pulled myself up and slowly sauntered to the backdoor. When I stepped outside, the sun blinded me. Trying to see, I raised my hand to my forehead, as if giving a salute, and looked out on the backyard. It was a small lot isolated with tall wooden fences on three sides. Despite its small area, it was actually quite handsome with a well-manicured lawn gently shadowed by two oaks in the neighboring yards. Along the fenced perimeter were raised flower beds, all filled with budding blossoms. Overlooking the yard was a comfortable terrace patio with a wooden table and thick cushioned, wicker chairs.
“Dear, how about we do some gardening? I could use your help. Besides, it’s just gorgeous out today, and I think you could use some fresh air.” My grandmother stood at the side of a flower box wearing her yellow visor, gardening knee pads and set of worn gloves.
“I really don’t know how to garden, Nana. I’ll probably just slow you down.” I said this as an excuse, ready to return to my recliner.
“Oh, that’s no problem. I can teach you. We’ll do it together, and by the end of the day you’ll be a real pro. I’m just sure of it.” I grabbed the extra pair of muddy gloves from the terrace table and trudged over to my grandmother.
“Now dear, we’re going to start by pulling weeds. Anything that looks like this,” she held up a bright, yellow dandelion “needs to be pulled up by the roots. If you can’t get the weed at its roots, it’ll just grow right back.” I began my work hesitantly. However, after a little while I developed a steady pace of searching and plucking. The dirt, which had originally irritated me, became familiar. I felt rejuvenated in the garden. As strange as it was, I was happier digging in the dirt that day than I had been in a long time.
In the late afternoon, my grandmother prepared a fresh cucumber salad, light sandwiches and a tall pitcher of ice-cold lemonade. “Faith, come inside and wash up. Lunch is all ready.” We washed our hands, a practice touted constantly on every television station, and sat down at the kitchen table. “How about we sit on the porch, Nana?” My grandmother, initially surprised by the request, smiled. “Of course, dear.” We lunched in the shade of the terrace enjoying food, atmosphere and company alike.
We returned to our gardening once more with my grandmother instructing me on the virtues of pruning and fresh manure. Citing her age, my grandmother retired to reading her book while I continued on. Once and a while, I noticed that she would glance up from her novel and smile to see me engaged and happy again. We ate supper on the patio as well, watching the sky change from a light blue to pink and then a rich purple as night slowly crept in.
“Nana?” I asked. “What do you make of this thing? I mean this whole coronavirus?”
“Well” she began, “It’s just awful. What do you mean, dear? Is something on your mind?”
“It’s just… I don’t know. It’s so scary to think of how something we can’t even see is doing this. I don’t know. Just forget that I brought it up.”
“You don’t have to be ashamed of your feelings. You know that, dear. And you know that you can talk to me about anything.” This last statement was half declaration, half question.
“How do you do it? You know that mom’s working with people that have it. She could get it. And yet, you seem so unfazed by it all.”
“Let me tell you a story, dear. I hadn’t been born yet, but it was my great aunt and uncle who lived during the worst of the Spanish Flu. Oh, it was terrible.” She shook her head as if to stop herself from remembering her family’s suffering. “My great uncle was drafted into the military. At the time they called it the Great War. Millions were killed in those miserable trenches over there. The poor, young boys sent to murder one another. Oh, how awful.” Her voice trailed off.
“Nana, please. I’m so sorry to upset you like this.”
“No, dear” she said, collecting herself. “It’s ok. I want you to know this story because this is part of your life too.” She began her story again. “My uncle was drafted into the army and was shipped over to France. It was there that he caught it- the Spanish Flu. Just days after his platoon had won a major battle, he died. He survived combat that killed thousands and was killed by the flu! How does someone explain something like that?”
For a moment, we sat in silence.
“My sweet darling. I don’t know how to explain the suffering of this world. I don’t pretend to have all, or for that fact, any of the answers. But I can tell you what I believe to be true. Life is fragile. When we forget this, we lose sight of what matters, of what makes life worth living. You can chase all the money and power and status that you want. In the end, it doesn’t matter. We must instead try to love one another deeply, appreciate beauty when we see it and relish every moment of this short life we have. We don’t know whether our lives will be long novels or short stories. All we can do is make sure that they are good ones.”
With this, we embraced. At that moment, nothing mattered to us except one another. As if our understanding surpassed even words themselves, we sat silently in the garden looking up at the shimmering stars above. I thought of how much I loved the city aglow at night and dreamt of being home. Then, I realized that in the lights of the city I could never see as many stars as I did at that very moment. Perhaps, when life falls apart, we must change our perspective so that even away from the warm, comforting lights of home, we can recognize a new beauty that we have never seen before. We can find a light in the darkness.
The boy is in a bubble. The boy lets go of time. The boy is not in trouble. The boy just wastes his mind.
The boy does not speak the boy does not lie the boy does not sleep the boy does not cry
A nurse is the first kind soul greeting the fearful during times of uncertainty and wonder
A nurse is the wounded’s number one supporter when bad news hits with a wave of emotions
A nurse is the empathy ensuring that rainy days always give light to beautiful rainbows
A nurse is the glue that holds the team together when days get hard and nights are long
A nurse is the hero who puts their life at risk everyday to save those in danger
A nurse exhibits patience and grace when every negative hurdle gets thrown their way
A nurse won’t take no for an answer and will work endlessly to change one’s outcome
A nurse understands that not every day is guaranteed so it is important to live life to the fullest
A nurse stands up to the unbearable demons of an uncontrollable virus with perseverance
Thank you to all the nurses who demonstrate what it is to be a superhero during this pandemic.
Your kind hearts, leadership, commitment, and bravery is greatly appreciated.
“It’s only a virus.”
with ignorant tongues
that should have kept silent.
“People die every day.”
as if they didn’t know
the impact of death.
“Is a mask necessary?”
because the precaution
was an inconvenience.
“Screw social distancing.”
and they fed
their greedy desires.
“How much longer?”
while those fighting for life
asked the same question.
as medics worked endlessly
to save ailing patients.
“Where will I vacation?”
because vacation was clearly
the highest priority.
“It’s so-and-sos fault.”
and they forgot the dirt
on their own hands.
“Why are there still cases?
with uncovered mouths
in large groups.
“It’s only a virus.”
as if a careless statement
would make it true.
I first heard of coronaviruses in my introduction to microbiology course during the sophomore year of my undergraduate degree. It was grouped in a chapter of miscellaneous viruses, and my study habits allowed me to file it in my mind as a single stranded RNA virus that causes mild respiratory infections like the common cold.
Virology was a subsection of the microbiology course and was only allotted a small portion of class time. Professors focused on teaching us about the larger known viruses that cause hepatitis, mononucleosis, influenza, herpes, HIV, hemorrhagic fever, rubella, gastroenteritis, and encephalitis. For students entering a field in medicine, these viruses would be relevant to diagnosing and treating patients. I studied how viruses are diagnosed in a laboratory setting during my junior year clinical microbiology course. One method of detection is through a serological method where the blood is tested for the presence of an antibody against the virus. There are also ways to grow viral cultures or detect viral antigens through electrophoresis, immunofluorescence, electron microscopy, western blot, and enzyme- linked immunosorbent assays. I was able to observe and practice most of these techniques during my senior year hospital microbiology rotation.
The field of clinical laboratory science is broad. It encompasses transfusion medicine, chemistry, hematology, and immunology in addition to microbiology. I chose to work in transfusion after graduation. Knowledge of viruses was important for keeping the blood supply safe. Each unit of blood donated at my hospital was tested for a panel of viruses prior to being transfused. It was part of my job to record the results of each test and to quarantine any units that might endanger a recipient. Coronaviruses were still filed as a miscellaneous virus in my mind. The epidemics of SARS and MERS in 2003 and 2012, respectively, were items I had read about in professional publications, but did not need to apply in practice. That all changed when the single stranded RNA virus known as SARS-CoV-2 started spreading the disease now known as COVID-19. This virus would require the attention of the entire world.
Clinical laboratory scientists are trained to notice the details in order to provide meaningful and accurate diagnostic information to physicians. SARS-CoV-2 is 120 nm in size. That’s 60 times smaller than a single red blood cell. It needs to be magnified in order for our inferior human senses to detect it. My naturally curious mind is fascinated by how quickly and powerfully this tiny protein has spread throughout the world. It needs a human host in order to reproduce itself and continue to survive. It has no idea that its own life cycle is causing so much disruption to humanity. A virus does not have the ability to think or reason, so it cannot possibly understand that it is, in a growing number of cases, destroying its host. It cannot know that it is changing our social interactions, our economy, and our healthcare system. I marvel at the metaphor that we as humans have become like coronaviruses to the earth. We need it to survive, and we are somewhat ignorant to what damage that our life cycle may be causing to the balance of the planet. While scientists and physicians are scrambling to develop laboratory tests to detect the tiny virus, healing treatments to help patients recover, and vaccines to prevent the further spread, the earth is responding to lower levels of noise and pollution.
Underneath that marvel and curiosity of the thinking scientist in me is also a feeling human being that is experiencing and adapting to the situation with the same pain and suffering we are all going through. There is so much emotion going through me as I watch those I love cope with the results of this infection. I have watched family members cope with the isolation of being in a nursing home without visitors, the loneliness of passing away from cancer far away from family, the discomfort of being unable to mourn together at the funeral after losing a loved one, coping with the loss of employment, adjusting to working or schooling at home, facing the fear of uncertainty in obtaining necessary supplies whether in healthcare or the grocery store, having to rethink how to handle a dental emergency, forgoing celebrating holidays, missing senior proms, graduations, milestone birthday celebrations, weddings, dream vacations, outings with friends, the fear of working the front lines caring for those who are suffering directly from the infection, struggling to find ways to cope with life’s challenges without diversions such as sports, theaters, and concerts or simple pleasures like having a haircut or coffee with a friend. Despite all of these painful observations, I feel the love of family and friends who try to connect through technology and generosity the community finding ways to get supplies and food to those in need. It is causing a lot of suffering, but a tiny miscellaneous virus is also giving us time to slow down and contemplate our values.
It started with a whisper, in a classroom or two,
But as a few weeks went by, these whispers grew,
They became a sea of gossip, of warnings and predictions,
It was on the news, in the media, and I thought it was fiction.
One day this subject became too wide-spread to ignore,
And all of a sudden, I was feeling unsure.
One moment, the virus seems like rumors and lore,
The next, it's more troubling than ever before.
I felt sick.
My head was spinning from news on the TV,
My stomach churned from the friends I had to leave,
My heart ached for those I could no longer see,
And I grew tired of counting the places I couldn't be.
Week number three.
This pandemic is creating a sickness in me,
But it won't enter my body, it's infecting me mentally.
This isolation is too much to bare,
Because it's difficult to cope when nobody's there.
I don't care.
It's week number four, I'm ready to give in,
I can't do this anymore, can't keep going, I can't win!
There's a mountain of stress, it's too high to hop,
It's too much to handle, I'm going to drop.
Open your eyes, take a look around,
We're picking ourselves up, we're standing our ground.
People are dying, it's sad, it's true,
But we're standing together, we're saving lives too.
Now I know the situation is not something to ignore,
But our world has been through much worse before.
We've seen blood, violence, weapons and war,
Plague, famine, drought, and more.
There are so many moments in our history,
When we lost faith in humanity,
When we'd lost hope, or thought we'd divert to insanity.
But we didn't.
That's just it. Time and time again our world has faced horrors well known, and unspoken,
But through all the trials we've faced, we were left unbroken.
I know that we're scared, I know we're shaken,
I know that we're lonely or feeling forsaken.
I know it hurts, it's hard to breathe,
But look. There's a light at the end, don't you see?
It may be hard to believe, but the worst part is over,
Because we've wisened up, we're smarter, we're sober.
We're going to recover, each day we get better,
We'll heal our sick world, and we'll do it together.
It was only relatively recently that I learned how to swim
My mother always said stay in the shallow end
And nothing bad will happen
I would frolic and splash with the water I was in
Warm droplets of water dripping down my skin
I always remember glancing back towards the big kid deep end
But then a wave a water would bring me back
To focus on what at least I could have
I should’ve never left the shallow end
I was happy, innocent, and floating about
With many eyes on me and little possibility to submerge myself under
They say the grass isn’t always greener on the other side
But the water sure looked bluer in the deep end
I wanted to swim big and be free with just me
Be the captain of my own ship in this beautiful vast sea
They all said just wait My little Girl, be patient, one day you’ll want to return
I begged and pleaded for them to release
And one day they said goodbye while we all sobbed and cried
I swam off
With foolish certainty
That the bottom was always in reach beneath me
But boy was I wrong
The floor had no presence
The more I explored the deeper the ending
The bottom was like Hell
You thought you reached it before
No No No Sweetie you’ve got a long ways more
Before you actually reach the bottom
But the catch is the bottom only gets deeper
Until you drown
Then you gasp for air and only water comes in
You are choking Now
Don’t you wish you never came to this end
It’s scary, full of sharks, full of pressure from the depths of sea
Thoughts push out “Why didn’t anyone warn me”
Then the memories flood back in of every person turning you around
To help you stay there where it was safe and sound
You’re the one who left, you’re the one who cried
Promising and pleading that you’ll be fine
So don’t blame it on them
If you need to so bad you can blame it on the big kids
You saw them handle it and you thought you could too
Then one morning you looked up through the wavy water
You saw light, you saw God, and you saw your father
They reached out their warm arms and they pulled you through
This time you cried in spirit because you saw the Truth
They said we will always be here watching for you
Sets of eyes never left the sight of you wandering
It was only your own eyes that got lost with fear
Just bring them back to focus my Precious Dear
Look up to the sky when you think you’re alone
That was the day I learned how not to drown
They reminded me I can float, it was my choice to be dying on the ground
I can frolic and play and still twirl around
The little girl within me shown loud and she shone proud
You’ve known this little girl since the day she came out
Now that same little girl is the one moaning your name Rob
You’ve seen her swim before having seen her sin
So why did you let her take her feet off the ground
She might’ve sat on your lap before but this time she’s turned around
Her front facing your front, may the moment begin
But with seconds to spare we took each other in
She looked down at him
I was never this close to this beautiful man
He stained me with imagery and burned me with fire
I couldn’t dare to forget
His pink but darkened but neutralized lips
His testosterone smoking out behind his prominent chin
His sexy salted shadowed lower face
The most beautifully sculpted art piece God put together
His strong musky scent only born from within
Everything about him I took in
Not to mention his eyes
They pull you right in
Gentle when he’s curious but piercing when he’s going to strike
At least they shot me, they could’ve sniped me in the dark
Oh Wait we’re already there and the sun went away
Like animals we ravished each other and gorgeously misbehaved
His mouth was open right before we kissed, just slightly
I held the back of his head
I never thought I could do that
That was the last moment with now no chance to go back
I bite my lip now thinking about how it all passed
Not nearly as hard though as him biting my flesh
I was his meal that he wanted to undress
His whispered raspy sounds made me wet
He licked me all over and I tried to keep up
But he overtook me, my run was his walk
His tongue is like the water
Silky smooth and wet
I never want to get out
It’s colder in the air
And he can make me melt
He’s aggressive and assertive he made things fade away
He made me focus on him
I can still feel his lower half on the bottom beneath me
I’ve never so badly wanted to stay in this end
Different dangers are lurking like mountains under the sea
He can make me peak but we might slide down after
But at least not before he slides into me
I never want to return back to the shallow end
Since he’s known me forever maybe he’ll protect me more
But I know the winds carry the sea when it storms
So I surrender myself
I know I might drown
But if he’s the one who does it
God send me down
There are two types of lives being led right now
With everyone feeling holier than thou
Day by day the tensions rise
With anxiety at an all time high
Every breath bringing us closer
And further from death
The bubbles of comfort that we so carefully crafted
Are now where we are kept captive
Now means standing apart
I can’t help but be snide
Thousands are dying
Yet some people can’t stop trying
To get a damn haircut
When I lie in bed
And think about the end
It’s no longer bombs or terror
But whispers of prayers
Crawling out of mouths too young
Taken before their songs have been sung