How living through 9/11 helped me cope when my chance of surviving COVID-19 was 50/50.
My room was in a special hospital wing, separated from other areas with a big WARNING sign taped to the door. It featured a narrow anteroom between my room and the hallway, where the doctors and nurses would shed their personal protection equipment and sterilize themselves after attending to me.
When they entered my room, they were so covered with masks and gowns that I could only see their eyes behind the visors that shielded them. The risk to the health care workers was so high that they came in only once every four hours or so to reduce their exposure.
There was a tiny window over my head near the ceiling. No other patients were in the room.
It felt like a tomb.
SICK AND ALONE
I was freezing because the air conditioning was turned up high, but I didn’t want to press the call button and make someone suit up for something as trivial as a blanket. I was hooked up to an IV and various other contraptions to measure my vitals, including my oxygen saturation, EKG levels and blood pressure. Even with the IV drip, I was still so dehydrated that I drank pitcher after pitcher of water. Since I didn’t want to bother the staff when I needed more water or for help using the toilet (which was constant), I had to drag the IV and all the cables and cords into the toilet and try to do what I needed to do as quickly as possible, worried I might faint in the process.
I couldn’t talk on the phone, because I didn’t have the energy to use my voice. I only called my husband, Brian, about every hour to croak out short updates to him, as I knew he was sitting by the phone wracked with worry. I couldn’t read anything, because my temperature was constantly exceeding 101 degrees, which made me unable to follow a story line. I flipped through the channels to distract myself, but it seemed every other channel was featuring COVID-related death statistics and terrible stories about the virus’ destruction. The same with social media. When I saw an article being passed around about 50 priests in northern Italy who had died attending to the sick, I firmly shut the computer. Oh Lord, this is beyond awful!
A nurse entered the room. I asked, “Have the test results come in yet?”—something I’d been asking for the past six hours. Her eyes widened in shock. “No one has told you yet?!” she asked, with a hint of frustration. I shook my head. “You are quite positive.” Although tears sprang to my eyes, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t need a positive test or a nurse to tell me I had COVID-19. I knew it as soon as I began having symptoms four days earlier.
COVID-19 AND QUARANTINE (TWICE)
We had just celebrated a wonderful week with family in our home in New York City. My nieces had arrived from Florida for spring break—a week full of Broadway shows and sightseeing. But the lockdown began shortly after they arrived. We immediately made plans to fly them back to central Florida, and my husband and I would be going with them. We felt confident on the plane. It was nearly empty, the attendants were upbeat, we wore our masks and gloves and we all felt great. When I looked at my nieces’ young beautiful faces, we knew we’d made the right decision to get them out of harm’s way.
Once we arrived in Florida, however, I started showing symptoms. It started with a general malaise-y feeling: headache, fever, body aches. My eyes stung and reddened. I lost all sense of taste and smell. I had an insatiable thirst. After one day of drinking gallons of water and Gatorade, I violently threw everything up with a force that knocked me to the floor. I couldn’t think about eating anything. My temperature reached 102 degrees; it felt like my blood was boiling.
Finally, after a day of multiple symptoms, including terrible diarrhea and frightening fainting spells, we knew it was time to go to the hospital. I was admitted and immediately quarantined. The doctors worked to stabilize me, concentrating on my dangerously low blood pressure. The rest of the family, including my nieces, were starting to show symptoms as well, although not nearly as extreme as mine. Luckily, no one else in the family was hospitalized. Please restore their health, Lord! Please don’t let them suffer with a heavy case of this!
I was nervous but relieved to be in the hospital. I was caught off guard when they discharged me the next day, telling me that they had stabilized me and that I had to continue to fight the virus at home. “The hospital is here to address life-threatening situations, and you’re out of the woods at this particular time,” a doctor explained.
I texted Brian, and he picked me up. That night, back at my brother-in-law’s residence, my body erupted into a painful chaos of vomit, diarrhea and other symptoms so severe I was sure it was going to be my last night on earth. I felt hopeless, trapped in an upstairs bedroom, relying on friends to drop off groceries. A few days later, my fever shot up again, and my heart started racing. Brian drove me back to the hospital. I was terrified. This virus wasn’t letting go.
The doctors quarantined me and helped to manage my vitals again. After a two-night stay, the doctor came to my room to announce that I was going home. I pleaded with him to let me stay. After firmly refusing my pleas, I asked what had been on my mind since the day I began showing symptoms: “What are my chances of survival?” He took a breath and spoke frankly. “About 50/50.”
How am I quarantined in a Florida hospital with a survival chance of only 50/50? Didn’t we do everything right by leaving the city and protecting our family? Was my life going to come down to a flip of the coin? Heads or tails? I was now fighting for my life, and it felt eerily familiar.
I had been down this road before, almost 19 years earlier.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
On that fateful day, Brian and I were on the balcony of our 24th-floor apartment, six blocks from the World Trade Center. We were standing there, staring at the black smoke and destruction caused by the first plane, when out of nowhere the second plane came roaring overhead and struck Tower 2 just 500 feet above us.
The impact hurled us backward into our living room and temporarily knocked us unconscious. Once we came to, we grabbed our dog and evacuated our building. Barefoot and still wearing pajamas, we sought safety in nearby Battery Park. But the nightmare continued. Both towers soon fell, covering us with toxic dust and debris. Heavy smoke engulfed us in a deadly cloud. We eventually managed to board a boat headed to New Jersey, unknowingly participating in the largest sea evacuation in history. We had escaped, but we couldn’t return to our apartment for months. We grappled with unemployment, PTSD and ongoing health issues, having inhaled the toxic dust that left us with “9/11 lungs.”
I was a Christian then, but my faith was shallow and untested. I went to church, but that was about the extent of my walk with the Lord. When Brian and I were in Battery Park as the towers fell, I had asked him if he thought we were going to survive. He replied, sadly, “Maybe not,” and grabbed my hands and began praying the Lord’s Prayer. Although I was happy we were together during this awful time, I felt alone. These might be my last moments on earth, I realized. I didn’t know where I was going if I did die. I became painfully aware that I didn’t possess a relationship with God, that I’d only ever lived for myself. It was a terrible acknowledgment—that, throughout my life, a Savior beckoned to me with open arms, and I’d never cared enough to respond. Once we survived 9/11, I knew I was ready to explore a deeper connection with God. I never wanted to feel that alone again.
Urged by a friend, I approached Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which was distributing aid to people affected by the attacks, and they helped us with monetary assistance. We both became members and eventually even took jobs with the church. (Brian became the chief financial officer, and I became the missions director.) We experienced incredible spiritual growth through personal study, community groups and various church activities.
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY AND GOODNESS
Nearly 20 years later, I lay in bed in my hospital room and prayed, something I’d been doing throughout each day of my hospital stays. My COVID-19 survival rate is 50/50, I thought. There is no 50/50 with you, Lord. You are sovereign over this, and if it’s your will, please heal me. Although I was entirely alone, unlike in Battery Park, I never felt alone during my illness. I knew the Holy Spirit was with me. A deeper relationship with Christ gave me the courage to navigate the scary days of the virus in a way I could have never done on September 11.
It took another few weeks of fighting the virus at home, but I did recover along with the rest of the family. On Easter Sunday, the girls and I took a bike ride. I hadn’t been on a bike in a long time and was delighted at how much fun biking was on a beautiful day. As I watched my lovely nieces pedal in front of me, laughing and joyful, I began to weep as I witnessed this wondrous display of God’s providence and mercy.
At the same time, gratitude overwhelmed me when I realized I had weathered this storm with God as my Rock and my center, as opposed to suffering through the terror of 9/11 when he was not. And it made all the difference.
This article originally appeared on TheGospelCoalition.org and is reposted here by permission.