By Jodie Gunzberg, as told to Jennifer Clopton
We had thought we were being careful enough. We didn’t have a party or large gathering. We limited ourselves to only small, intimate interactions -- the kind that so many people are likely about to have this holiday season. But these interactions that we thought were harmless ended with 10 confirmed COVID-19 infections in our family. Most of us have recovered, but we lost my father.
It was just before Halloween -- on Oct. 30 -- when my parents, living in New Jersey, had their very close cousins visit from Long Island. Since it was a long drive, the cousins stayed the night with my parents. The next day, on Halloween, my parents invited my sister’s family over, and they gathered inside so they could see the little girls dressed up in their costumes. Shortly after that, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, my parents came to my place to celebrate my Dad’s birthday and they stayed with us until Thursday.
While driving home from our place, my parents got a call from their cousins who announced they had just tested positive to COVID-19. Fear rippled through our family and reality ended up being far scarier than any of us could have envisioned. My parents got the next positive tests, then my sister’s family, and then mine. This virus is a beast. We were all symptomatic. My mom got really sick and had to call 911. Paramedics came and gave her oxygen to help with her breathing.
My husband and my 14-year-old son got really sick. My husband got better, but 5 weeks later, my son still hasn’t fully recovered. His symptoms still include fatigue, headache, and a stomachache that haven’t fully resolved. I was moderately ill. I just had a little bit of a stuffy nose but I had a terrible brain fog. I couldn't remember anything for 2 days, and I worried I would never be able to think again. Thankfully, I am back to normal now. All of us lost our smell and taste. It was all very scary.
But the worst, most heartbreaking experience for us is what happened to my father. When he started to really struggle to breathe, the ambulance took him to the hospital where he was admitted. He was intubated in the emergency room and was on a ventilator for a week. After he made it off the ventilator, his decline continued. He passed away 26 days after his first symptoms.
For us, there’s no point in placing blame. There were plenty of adults involved in making the decisions we did about gathering in each other’s homes. I’ve gone over and over it, but at this point, there’s nothing I can do to change it for us. The virus has already ravaged our family. But I am speaking out because there’s still time for you to assess the decisions you’re making to best protect those you love.
Here’s what I want everyone to realize: Love and trust don’t equal health and safety. Don’t make the same mistakes we did, and think you’re going to be safe because you’re only gathering with a few close relatives inside your own homes. That is incredibly risky -- almost like playing Russian roulette with the lives of the people you care about most.
Look, I get it. This is hard. These decisions are hard, and people you love may get mad at you for suggesting certain gatherings shouldn’t happen because they are too risky. Speak up anyway. There are times in life we do hard things because that is what is required for the health and safety of those we love, and this is one of those times. There’s no way of knowing who will be impacted the most by this virus and who will live or die as a result of the decisions you make now. It’s just not worth taking the chance.
I’ve seen people express confusion about what is and isn’t safe. So I want to share the things I wish we had done differently in the hopes that you can avoid an outcome like ours.
1. Remember that, from a risk perspective, there’s a difference between immediate family and your household. I think many of us are confusing immediate family with our households because it’s hard to think of your immediate relatives -- your parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins, especially ones you are really close to -- as threats. But people who don’t live in your home do present a risk to you, and you present a risk to them.
For the purposes of this pandemic, the only safe people to be in close proximity with inside our homes are the people we actually live with. People you trust, who are close to you, like your immediate family, can be carriers -- with or without symptoms. We just didn’t take that into account.
2. Wear masks everywhere, even inside your own homes -- if others are there. We didn’t wear masks inside our own homes when others were there, and we should have. Our doctor recommends wearing them outside too if you are near anyone outside of your household. It’s such a little thing to do in the whole scheme of things, but it can make an enormous difference.
3. U nderstand how easily COVID-19 spreads. We underestimated this, even with very few people gathering together. You don’t need to be at a bar, a party, or a nursing home to be exposed. You just need to be near one infected person. We didn’t think that what we were doing was risky because it was just a few of us who were very close together in our house. We had no sense that danger was lurking among us, but it very much was.
4. The virus can make k ids sick too. Our biggest concern before this happened was that the kids in the family might get the grandparents sick because all of our kids are in hybrid school and doing outdoor sports like soccer. What we failed to realize or really think about was that kids can also get the virus from grandparents. It’s not always the other way around. Kids can and do get symptoms and become severely ill. My 14-year-old is still trying to get back to normal, and it’s heart-wrenching to watch your children deal with this.
Look, I know it’s easier said than done to do the right thing 100% of the time. I know COVID fatigue is real. I know wearing a mask all day long -- inside your home -- is hard. I know not getting together with family at the holidays is sad and isolating. But I can tell you this: None of that is as hard as losing your father to this virus.
This has been a really traumatic experience for our family, and we are still figuring out how to cope with the loss of my Dad. Nothing’s going to change what we went through, but if there’s a chance that sharing our story might be able to save someone you love from getting sick or dying, it’s worth it to me to try. My father was an ophthalmologist, and he was always helping others. Telling this story so close to his death is very difficult. But all I can hope at this point is that sharing our story will let his legacy of helping others live on.
Jodie Gunzberg lives in New Jersey and is sharing her story in honor of her father, Ted Pearlman, a retired ophthalmologist, who leaves behind his beloved wife of 49 years, three children, and seven grandchildren.