Cleft repair surgery and coronavirus—a story

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Our baby right after birth

It was a beautiful morning in the city, with spring in the air and magic around every corner.

But for me, New York didn’t blossom in my eyes; it was different for us. I was taking our nine-month-old baby in for surgery. 

He had a cleft palate (and lip, but that was already repaired). A cleft lip and palate is a birth defect where the child’s face doesn’t fully close up on the upper jaw and lip and nose while in the womb. For birth defects, it is the best kind to have because it’s repairable. 

So that seemed manageable—scary—but doable. We could stomach it. But that wasn’t the only issue. 

There was another one. 

COVID-19. 

Our family has taken this very seriously. The two weeks before the surgery, we kept our six-year-old out of school and don’t know when he’ll go back. We canceled all meetings, lunches, get-togethers, everything—except the surgery. The only time we leave the apartment is to take a walk, only outdoors, in the fresh air. We have been on lockdown and, while we are locked in, we wash our hands every five minutes, literally. 

So then, on that beautiful morning, I was venturing out with our baby to go to a hospital—A HOSPITAL—where the sick go, which was something major for us. People who are infected might be there. But we thought it best to get the surgery done since the surgeon is one of the best at this repair, so we plunged into the great unknown. 

But I was prepared. I had a few face masks, gloves, and a will to get us out of there without getting infected. 

When I was there, I was the only one wearing a mask. I was that guy: The weirdo. Being Asian might have made the whole scene that I was look worse, but I carried on. There were a few people who reacted. A nurse asked me if there was a reason why I wore the mask. I said, “There’s a pandemic going on.” And a young kid sneezed and then made an exaggerated sneezing and coughing noise as if to imply my mask was unnecessary. And I got a strange look here or there but, for the most part, it was business as usual. 

The staff was kind and courteous and understanding, but there was a feeling that I shouldn’t have been wearing the mask. One nurse even mentioned that there was a shortage of them. (But I kept on thinking about the two countries—Taiwan and Singapore—who have effectively stopped the spread of the virus, and one of the measures they used was getting everyone to use face masks.) Doctors and nurses washed their hands and used hand sanitizer. But no one washed their hands for twenty seconds as the CDC has recommended. (No one; except me; ok, I do it for more like fifteen seconds.) It was odd to have such a prestigious institution as that hospital not be more vigilant and take this more seriously, especially since this unit was only for children. 

I asked the nurses and doctors what they thought about the Coronavirus. They said that it was an issue. But it almost sounded more like a nuisance than a real problem. 

And they might be right. 

But I kept on thinking “What if it’s not just a nuisance? Why not practice more precautions? Why not wash your hands more, for longer, thoroughly? Why not wear face masks? Why not work harder to stop the spread?”

One conversation I had with a nurse concluded on this idea, “We have to live our lives.” 

That seems to be the pervasive thought that I see: “I won’t let some stupid virus stop me from living my life.”

And I’ve got to say that I agree with that in most crisis situations. In WWII, the motto, “Keep calm and carry on” is inspiring especially when you think about Londoners keeping their lives going even when the Nazis bombed the hell out of their city. That mindset of never letting fear stop the way we do life is beautiful. That’s courage. That’s good. Don’t live in fear. Hoorah!

But this is different.

Our bodies betray us. Anyone can be a carrier. All the virus needs is a warm body: yours, mine, your buddies. And our common behaviors spread the very thing that hurt our neighbors, friends, parents, people. With each handshake, kiss, cough, sneeze, we can advance illness, and even death, unbeknownst to us, and them. 

That’s how this virus works: it’s stealthy. People can be contagious even if they don’t feel bad—or asymptomatic. That means you don’t have to feel like death curled up next to you with some doctor in a hazmat suit hovering over you, laboring to keep you alive, to be infectious. No. You can just feel a little off, or nothing at all, and sneeze and give it to someone else. Just like that.

This virus grows exponentially. One person on average gives it to two. That’s crazy and freaky. So one becomes two, and two becomes four, then eight, and before you know it you have a hockey stick on a chart of people all with the virus. That’s scary.

We should all be scared. Because people die from this. Our parents, friends, loved ones, they can all get it and it can possibly be fatal.

If we don’t stop how we live our lives this virus can stop it for us, for our loved ones.

Eventually I walked our precious son into the unnaturally bright OR to have people cut our son open in order to heal him, but I feared less the knife and more the invisible enemy that was too small to see. 

After leaving him there, I waited in the waiting room. There were other parents and families. 

I did what I could to fill the time, making some phone calls, praying, and reading with my face mask on, with people looking at me, as they coughed and sneezed around me, as the hair on my neck pricked up, with fear. Dread filled me. 

The operation was supposed to take two hours, but it was solidly passed that. I was panicking. You know when you start thinking those irrationally dreadful thoughts? You know, the bad ones, really bad ones. That’s what I was doing. 

After two and a half hours the surgeon came out and greeted me with a smile. Relief washed over me. I smiled back. But he couldn’t see it under my face mask. I stood up and he told me my baby was well. I was so grateful.  

“They’ll call you back in a bit to see him,” he told me as he held out his soft, supple, well-manicured hand, only the way a world-class surgeon, with seven-figure hands, could. I clasped it. It felt good. It felt bad. And as he walked away, I followed him a few feet away and thrusted my hand under the huge hand sanitizer dispenser that hospitals have everywhere. And a white foamy cloud of liquid gold fell into my palm, with that distinct mechanical dispensing sound that they all make. Then I smeared it all around my hands, covering them over and over, not just removing any danger from them, but also washing away my fears. 

After a much longer time than I had expected, they finally welcomed me back. And when I saw him all I wanted to do was hold him and love him and be grateful all was well and hope that he was. 

After a few hours they discharged us even though we were supposed to stay the night. Before the surgery I told the doctor my concerns about staying overnight with the virus ramping up. He understood my concerns and put in the order to release us if our baby ate well enough. A baby not feeding is a real worry after they’ve had the roof of their mouth worked over. But he ate. And we were released. 

That was kind. Very kind. The doctor took some risk to let us out so that we could have some peace of mind. It was health care at its best, making caring for the patient the protocol, even if he had to break the protocols to do that. 

The fact is we don’t know if our baby, or I, have the virus or not. Before I left that morning I told my wife and our six-year-old son not to touch me when I returned: no hugging, kissing, etc. 

When I walked back home, they were both up, waiting for us. My firstborn drew a sign out of crayons to welcome us back. I felt loved even though we didn’t touch. We used words to express the feelings we felt to wrap one another with love and cover each other with the affection we carried in our hearts. 

We don’t know if we are carrying anything else in our bodies, but we will see. 

Regardless, it was good to be home. 

It still is. 

2 thoughts on “Cleft repair surgery and coronavirus—a story

  1. John, I am so glad that the surgery went well for your baby. That must be such a relief for you. Any ailment involving your children is so scary. I wish you and your family all the best with the virus. We find ourselves lucky to be in a rural area but are scared as well. I will add you to my list of people who I will worry about. It is a growing list.

    1. Linda, thank you for your note and your kindness and worry. It is a huge relief that the surgery is over and that we are not in the hospital anymore. I appreciate you and will keep you in our list of people to worry about too. I’m glad you’re more isolated. And wish you the best, my friend.

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