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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Scary Stuff

UnknownIf anyone needed proof that the world is getting smaller, surely the Ebola crisis is convincing. My husband remembers studying about Ebola in medical school, when Ebola was a seemingly isolated virus found deep in the jungles of Africa. Today, it has ravaged thousands of people in West Africa as the CDC’s website makes clear:  926 deaths in Guinea, 1,281 deaths in Sierra Leone, 2,705 deaths in Liberia, 8 deaths in Nigeria. Despite these disturbing statistics, the one that scares us the most is this one: 1 death in the United States. Africa seemed so far away; how did this happen?

As we all know, the one death attributed to Ebola in the U.S. was of a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, who had direct contact with an Ebola patient. For us, as Texans, it was particularly frightening because the virus didn’t come here through New York City or Los Angeles; it entered the U.S. through Dallas. Whoa. That was way too close for comfort. But, we soon learned that the patient’s family and friends were quarantined and the Dallas hospital seemingly had things under control, although they made an error sending the poor man home before finally admitting him on his second visit to the E.R. Sadly, Mr. Duncan died and all was quiet…for about two days. Then, we learned that a young nurse who cared for him at the hospital was infected. Uh-oh. This could get bad quickly. My first thought was whether my daughter, who lives in Dallas, could possibly be at risk. I mentally listed all the people who may have been exposed: the ambulance drivers, the friends and family of Duncan, the children who attended school with the kids who had contact with him; the nurses, doctors and staff of the hospital. Before engaging in much more speculation, I remembered the CDC’s reassurance that the disease could be contacted only through exposure to bodily fluids, and questioned, only briefly, whether this was accurate, and, if so, how did that young nurse get sick? Before long, I received a text from another of my daughters, who lives in Alabama. “They identified the nurse who has Ebola, Nina Pham. I know her; she graduated from TCU with my class in 2010. So sad and scary.” Ok, this was getting really frightening. She sent another text a few hours later. A close friend had lunch with Nina just a day or two before she got sick; she was taking her temperature a few times a day. Oh my God; what was happening? This seemed truly unbelievable. What would happen next? The fear was ratcheting up when news broke that a second nurse who cared for Mr. Duncan was sick, and she’d flown on a commercial flight to Cincinnati and back to Dallas with a fever. 130 passengers were possibly exposed to Ebola. The following morning, I was awakened by a text from my daughter in Dallas, “Someone at my apartment has Ebola. I was just informed.” It was the second nurse, Amber Vinson. Unbelievable. Two of my daughters have some connection with the two people infected with Ebola in the United States. Dallas reporters and haz-mat teams swarmed her apartment complex. After receiving more information, my daughter confirmed the ill nurse’s apartment was not in the immediate vicinity of her first floor apartment.  Everyone braced for what would come next. Thankfully, there were no additional reports of infected hospital workers in Dallas, and none of the friends and family of Duncan appeared ill. Both infected nurses have recovered, and my daughter’s friend has shown no symptoms. Another patient, a doctor, has brought Ebola into New York City from Guinea. His fiancee has been quarantined; he rode several subway trains and went bowling in Brooklyn before being diagnosed. A nurse who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone was quarantined in a tent after flying into Newark, NJ. What news will break tomorrow?

My husband and I traveled to Dallas last weekend for a wedding. We spent time with our daughters and spoke to our daughter’s dear friend, who told us about the personal horror of learning of her possible exposure to this deadly disease. We all agreed that watching the Ebola situation unfold on our shores has been extremely disconcerting and sad. It’s disturbed our naiveté and shaken our confidence in our nation’s healthcare system and the Centers for Disease Control. How could we be so unprepared for Ebola when it finally did invade our shores? Why wasn’t the first case in Dallas, Mr. Duncan’s, handled with more attention, with more alarm, quite frankly? Sadly, it has turned into a political issue as well. It has exposed the fragility of human reason when faced with crisis; we know that Ebola is a scary disease, but it isn’t as contagious as the measles or the flu, which is transmitted through the air. Most importantly, it has exposed our lack of empathy with the thousands of fellow humans whose lives have been destroyed by this terrible virus. Officials insist that the way to manage an Ebola outbreak in this country is to assist in stopping it where it started, in Africa.

On Sunday, we attended Mass in Dallas, listening as the priest read the gospel, Matthew 22:34-40, which contains the two great commandments. In his homily, the pastor used a timely example to illustrate the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  He told us that the many dozens of family and friends of Thomas Duncan who had been removed from their homes and quarantined at an undisclosed location had been housed at a retreat center, hosted by the Archdiocese of Dallas. He stated that the bishop ran the unknown risk of doing so, because he recognized his Christian obligation to love others, and he encouraged us to go out and do the same. The congregation was silent, sitting in rapt attention. I thought about my behavior of the last few weeks. Blaming, cursing, accusing, ignoring science and promoting fear. I thought, for the first time, of the thousands of West African patients and families whose lives have been forever changed by Ebola and prayed for the courage to love my neighbors, even if they live on the other side of the world.


Chaos in the Cafeteria

images Last year, inspired by a dear friend who has mentored a couple of students over the years, I decided to look into the possibility of mentoring a young person. Turns out, there was plenty of need for mentors in a nearby school district, so I signed up. After a few hours of training, I was assigned to a fifth grade girl, Laura, (her name is changed for this essay), with whom I was to meet once per week for thirty minutes during her lunch period. I was told that the only job requirement was to show up faithfully so that she could have a reliable presence in her life. She lived in a loving household, but a crowded one, which included parents, grandparents, seven siblings and a niece; individual attention was difficult to come by.  It was also suggested that I not try to help her with homework, (thank goodness), but play a game with her or engage her in some other activity. Armed with doodle books, markers, and a small bracelet-making kit, I nervously headed for the elementary school. The counselor was happy to see me, and went to retrieve Laura from her classroom. After a bit, the counselor returned with another woman who introduced herself to me as Laura’s teacher. Looking closely, I could see a little girl hiding behind her teacher’s skirt, holding on for dear life. The teacher tried to introduce us, but Laura would not look at me. She stared at the floor and wriggled to keep herself hidden. After some cajoling and pleading for her to shake my hand, the teacher suggested that we visit in the classroom, where she could be present and Laura could eat her lunch. We headed upstairs while the teacher prodded her to tell me about herself and her family. Laura merely stared at the floor and shook her head. In the classroom, we sat at a small table, Laura’s cafeteria tray untouched in front of her. I tried to tell her a little about me and about my daughter who’d attended the same school. She sat on her hands, refusing to look at me. I stood up and suggested that she should probably eat her lunch, and asked if I could come back next week. She glanced up at me for the first time and nodded slightly. The teacher gave me a sympathetic shrug as I walked away. Amazingly, when I returned the following week, Laura tolerated me and, eventually, she even looked excited to see me.  We spent every Monday through the end of the year playing Break the Ice, doodling with scented markers, and just chatting about the goings-on at her school. During the fifth graders’ graduation ceremony, Laura smiled shyly at me from the stage, and gave a little wave. Afterwards, her counselor asked if I’d like to continue serving as Laura’s mentor. “Of course,” I said, “but I’m not sure I’m doing any good. All I do is visit with her for a few minutes a week.” She assured me it was making a difference, so I followed Laura to middle school.

All the 6th graders eat together in the middle school cafeteria. It is an extremely loud, boisterous, and rowdy place, but that’s where Laura wants me to meet her. Every week I struggle to hear what she has to say, and watch as the girls around her pick at the food on their trays, then buy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for dessert. Last week, there was a commotion at the table behind us and a teacher exclaimed, “Whoa, whoa! What happened here?” He gently placed his hand on a young girl’s back and I noticed she was crying. A large puddle of water filled the table directly in front of her, and some had splashed on her shirt. The boy seated across from her began yelling, defensively, that he’d thrown his cup of water at her because she said something rude to him. Both kids were marched off to the principal’s office while the rest of the children at their table stood around, watching, pointing, and making a big show of laughing loudly. I asked Laura if she knew the girl. “Yeah; she’s new here.” Soon, the girl came back, alone, and took her seat at the table, whimpering and blotting her eyes with a tissue. I noticed a couple of girls approaching her, and, though I couldn’t hear what they said, I could tell by their body language it wasn’t good. Laura filled in the blanks,”They’re mad because their friend got in trouble and they’re blaming it on her.” The girl put her head down on the table and sobbed, while the mean girls kept up their taunts. I stood up and Laura looked surprised as I headed toward them. “What are you girls doing?” I asked. They looked annoyed by me. “Get back to your seats right now unless you have something nice to say.” They continued staring at me. “I’ll get a teacher over here to escort you to your seats unless you can find them by yourselves.” They gave me the stink eye and walked away. A friend of Laura’s went over to the girl, put her arm around her, and spoke to her gently. She never raised her head from the table. By now, Laura and the other girls at our table were quiet and looking nervously at me. “Girls, I hope you will be nice to her and show her that you’ve got her back. She needs friends.” They stared blankly back and a girl who’d been sitting next to Laura said, softly, “Laura said she was going to beat her up after school.” My heart broke. Laura looked stricken and embarrassed as she went into full denial mode. Then the bell rang and everyone filed noisily back to their classrooms. I told Laura I’d be back again on Thursday.

Let’s Eat!

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imagesLately, I’ve been asked by friends and family how I fill my days now that my kids have left the nest. I am saddened to find, upon reflection, that I spend a large part of everyday thinking about what’s for dinner. It starts right after I’ve tried to eat a healthy breakfast, then a mid-morning snack, and a light lunch. The rest of the day I find myself thinking about what to serve for dinner, scanning favorite recipes, cookbooks, or a copy of a clean eating meal plan that I printed off my computer in a moment of guilt following a particularly decadent weekend. Once I’ve settled on a couple of meal plans, I start making my grocery list, which takes awhile as it involves looking through pantries and spice drawers to see if I have any cream of mushroom soup or red pepper flakes that I can scratch off the list. Then, list in hand, I find every possible means to distract myself and delay the necessary stop at the grocery store. Better get a load of laundry started, empty the trash, maybe even clean that grout in the bathroom. After an hour or two of such meaningful activity, it’s mid-afternoon and I really must head to the grocery store. On the way, I decide the car needs to be filled and washed, the laundry needs to be picked up and a package needs to be put in the mail at the post office. By this point, it’s usually unbearably hot outside and I’m worn out from running around town and working so hard all day. I know I shouldn’t, but I feel guilty not having a home-cooked meal on the table, as planned. So, at this point I’ll often declare it “Fish Night,” which is easy because I don’t need to consult my grocery list. I just duck in the store for a piece of salmon, a bag of spinach and a box of couscous. (I found this particular meal plan in a low-carb cookbook some years ago and it has proven to be a gem.) Or, if I’m just too worn out to cook at all, I’ll dash into Central Market for a bagged “Dinner for Two,” which never fails to please, consisting of a delicious entree, a generous helping of vegetables, and a slightly soggy green salad with dressing. I rush home, exhausted, and put the dinner in the oven, the salad in the fridge.  I’m done for the day!  I reward myself with a cool glass of something and think about the next day, when I’ll really need to get to the grocery store.

Hmmm. I need to find something to do…

Threats, Part II

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IMG_1977Well, we made it. We survived our spur of the moment trip to NYC, a happy celebration of a thirty-year union, a few great meals, good conversation, fun sight-seeing, and a nice visit with old friends from the block. If you read Threats, part I, you know that we made our decision to visit New York City just three days before the trip, after a carefully planned trip to the Florida Keys was cancelled due to the threat of bad weather. We arrived in New York on Thursday night and checked into our comfy hotel room at The Iroquois, wedged between the famed Algonquin (which thrilled my literary brain), and the New York Yacht Club, which proved to be an elusive goal of my husband. Apparently, his membership to the Canyon Lake Yacht Club, did not help him gain entry in the NYYC, and we were not welcome. We consoled ourselves at Gramercy Tavern where we had a delicious meal and enjoyed such attentive service that I thanked our server profusely at the end of the evening. Ahh, we were beginning to relax.

The next morning I awoke to a text message from a dear friend, “DO NOT RIDE THE SUBWAY.” We turned on the news and saw that Iraqi intelligence (?) had uncovered a threat to the New York City subway system. So, my husband and I decided to take cabs all weekend and steer clear of Times Square and Grand Central Station, which we perceived as terrorist targets. We began our day with a long walk through Central Park, stopping at Belvedere Castle where we could see for miles, and, of course, at Strawberry Fields, so that I could pay homage to my friend, John Lennon. After lunch, we set out for some window shopping on Madison Avenue, and soon found ourselves in the Beretta Gallery, home of many large animal heads and a lot of expensive guns. Happily, they had on display one of Ernest Hemingway’s shotguns, which they carefully took down and handed to my husband to fondle. This was some consolation as our previously planned trip to the Keys was based, primarily, upon my husband’s desire to visit Mr. Hemingway’s home there. When we left the gallery and walked through Midtown, back to our hotel, we couldn’t help noticing that there were cops on every corner, some in uniform with their weapons at their side, and some sitting in unmarked cars parked along busy avenues. That night, we heard that the governor, the mayor and the police commissioner had all ridden the subway that day to show that it was safe. We felt much better.

On Sunday morning, we made our way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the 10:15 Cardinal’s Mass. We were disappointed that the exterior of this beautiful monument was covered with scaffolding although we could see that work on the spires was complete, as they were gleaming whiter than we’d ever seen. Then, we opened the massive front door and upon entering were shocked to find that scaffolding covered the entire interior of the church. The stained glass windows were all obscured and we could just see the altar in the distance. The rest of the church was completely covered by tall scaffolding, ladders, and plank walkways. We settled into the crowded pews and reviewed our program which confirmed that Cardinal Timothy Dolan would be presiding. Many priests, altar servers, and choir members processed into the church. No cardinal, though. Darn. Later, we enjoyed brunch in Tribeca, then leisurely strolled through the neighborhood, coming upon a ladder company with several plaques on the building memorializing firemen who had died on September 11, 2001.

In a very short time, it was Monday morning and time to make our way to the airport. “TRAVEL ALERT,” warned my phone in red type. I ignored it, thinking it was merely the same old warning about threats to the subway system, and we made our way to La Guardia airport. After checking bags and clearing security, I took the time to tap into the travel alert. It was a warning of massive delays in Chicago, where we had a connecting flight, due to a deliberately-set fire in a control tower. Apparently, many travelers had been stranded in Chicago airports all weekend. Are you kidding me, I wanted to scream. I called the airlines and was assured that our flights were on time. Whew! We dodged another bullet! We landed safely in San Antonio just a few hours later.

We awoke the next morning, ready to get back to our routine of work and chores, revitalized by the change of scenery and our memories of a fun weekend together. Then we turned on the news  and learned that Ebola had made its way to Texas…