New York City’s streets and restaurants were still packed in early March, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio argued over methodology, logistics and the economic repercussions of whether to shut the city down to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The government dismissed the benefits of wearing masks. But my sisters, Tamar, Talia and Elana, and I knew that our father, Baruch Haviv, an 82-year-old stroke survivor who lived in Midtown, needed protection. We got him N95 masks and begged him not to leave his apartment.
Our dad first came down with a cough and a fever and then, on April 8, he was taken to the hospital after collapsing. The city’s health care system was already overwhelmed by then, and so he was sent back home. The next day, he received a diagnosis of Covid-19.
Ten days after our dad became ill, he was admitted to Mount Sinai West in Manhattan, a short walk from where two of my siblings and I live. And yet, he may as well have been in another state. Suddenly we had become one of the many families for whom Zoom and caring strangers became a link for loved ones. It was surreal to communicate with him in this way.
It was hard to hear him over the roar of air purifiers and oxygen machines, and it was nearly impossible to make out what his doctors were saying through their double masks and face shields. We strove to set up routines and waited for his body to heal. Amazed when he seemed closer to himself and crushed when he wasn’t.
Because our dad lapsed into a contentious state that affected his care, the hospital agreed to allow one family member to visit in person. My sister Talia, who had recovered from Covid-19, stayed with him. The hospital provided a mounted iPad linked to Zoom, which enabled us to spend hours together every day, Talia in person and the rest of us in a digital cocoon.
When we’d end our daily video call, we wondered if it would be the last time we would see our dad. Each day that Talia was able to return in person was another day we felt we had more understanding of this disease and control over what was happening.
But was what we saw onscreen real life? One day we were told that our father was dying, which came as a shock. From where I was standing, things did not appear so dire. After all, he responded to our voices and reacted when we played songs from his favorite operas and Broadway musicals.
Our dad hated hospitals. Months after he suffered a stroke four years ago, he flew overseas on his own to visit friends. He had defied medical predictions in the past, and we were reluctant to accept this latest one.
The next day another doctor told us that he was going to make it. But each day would bring a new health issue. Did we want to intubate if needed? Resuscitate? Some decisions our father had already made in his living will; others were left to us to figure out. The pressure was immense.
We had another conversation about taking him home to die. Then within hours, we were told he was accepted into a plasma trial. Again we went from dicsussing taking him home to die to trying something new.
After our father was hospitalized for five weeks and even tested negative for the coronavirus, a doctor told us there was nothing left that the staff could do for him, and asked, did we want to take him home? We listened to the digital transmission, unable to fully accept what was being said. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if our dad had been given plasma a week earlier.
We still held out hope that once home, away from the noise and medical interruptions, he could improve.
I can’t imagine how our family would have coped if my sister hadn’t been allowed to visit. What the hospital did for us, what was normal at other times, was extraordinary during this time. For our dad to have had the chance to have his daughter near, and his children to have had more time with their father, albeit through a screen, is irreplaceable. With infections spiking across the country, I hope that other families will be allowed the same experience for themselves and their loved ones.
I have spent my career shining a light on how the decisions leaders make inflict harm on innocent people. My dad’s last days in a way mirrored what I documented in Iraq, the Balkans and other war zones. He shouldn’t have died — he and too many others are gone because of our government’s failure.