A must-read book of 20th century history

By Caitlin Kelly

There are very few book of more than 500 pages anyone wants to tackle!

Let alone one that focuses on an international source of death…

No, not COVID, but AIDS.

I found this book on the shelf at my father’s house on our visit to Ontario in September and had been wanting to read it for many years but hadn’t sought it out.

Then, there, I had time to sit in the fall sunshine and read for hours.

Despite the grim topic and the fact it all happened more than 30 years ago it is a tremendous read — powerful real characters, from death-denying politicians, AIDS activists, researchers in Washington and Paris competing for prestige and power as they sought a vaccine, the individual men and women affected and their families and friends…

It is an astonishing piece of reporting, of history — and so sadly, powerfully prescient of what we’re all enduring with COVID. Of course its author, Randy Shilts, also later died of the disease.

I remember a lot of this because it was also my time.

I was a young and ambitious daily newspaper reporter in the mid 1980s, and so AIDS became part of the work I did for The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. I lost two dear friends — both gay men — to this disease because, then, it just killed everyone, and they died terrible deaths.

I still remember the names of some of those incredibly dedicated and frustrated doctors doing their best against, then, an implacable enemy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of them.

For millions of closeted gay men, it also meant suddenly coming out to their families — some of whom rejected them, leaving them to die alone in ever-more-crowded hospital wards.

It affected women and children through shared needles, through blood tranfusions, through unprotected sex with men who were infected, whether they knew it or not.

We were horrified by it, scared of it, despairing when someone we loved called to tell us it was now their turn.

I know most of you won’t even consider reading it, and I get it!

But it is an important and powerful testament to all the issues we’re fighting today….still!

Political infighting.

Denial.

Vicious battles between those who recognize(d) the science and those who refused.

Demonization of victims.

Demonization of the health-care workers caring for them.

Fear that caring for AIDS patients could kill someone.

Insufficient funding to help victims.

Insufficient government action — sooner — to mitigate the disease’s spread.

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadians have just had their Thanksgiving and Americans are already geared up for Hallowe’en and their Thanksgiving, let alone other holidays and the (large) family gatherings usually expected and anticipated.

Not us.

Jose’s parents are long gone, his nearest sister lives a four-hour drive away and my only close relative, my 91-year-old father, is in Canada, where my American husband is banned and I face a 14-day quarantine. I haven’t seen him in more than a year and haven’t crossed that border since late September 2019, when it was no big deal.

Every social gathering — let alone professional — is now so fraught with menace and fear, caution and basic human desperation for a damn hug!

This week we are joining two friends, outdoors (bringing a blanket!) for a two-person birthday celebration at a Manhattan restaurant. This weekend, we’re meeting three people, also outdoors, for lunch.

The grilling!

Who will wear a mask and when and for how long?

Who have they met with and how recently and under what circumstances?

Do we trust their friends — who we have never met?

We live in downstate New York, where daytime temperatures are still in the 60s or 70s but night-time plunging to the 40s, hardly a comfortable temperature for sitting anywhere for very long.

It’s wearying.

Our family’s first and only grandchildren are twins born in D.C. in May — and my father still hasn’t seen them. Nor have I, since my half-brother refuses all contact after a 13-year estrangement.

Millions of people have now lost loved ones to COVID and never had the chance to say good-bye.

Forget weddings and other groups….the latest NY crisis was the result of (!?) a Sweet 16 party, after a wedding in Maine had the same effect.

Our local church is now, finally, open again physically, with an indoor service (limited, it’s a small space) and outdoors at 4pm on the lawn. What I miss more than anything is belting out my favorite hymns…now a dangerous thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard and lonely to never see anyone.

Yes, it’s annoying and difficult to negotiate these times, especially with government “guidance” that shifts daily.

Needs must.

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

Water dripping on stone

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve always — imagine! — been impatient.

Have always hoped, somehow, my journalism would make a difference to the world, to its readers, maybe even to voters or policy-makers.

In my early 20s, I tackled a grim and difficult and important story, the testing of cosmetics and other products on animals. I won’t detail what I saw, but I never forgot it, and to see that as a young person is to be changed. I wrote it for a brave editor, the late and much missed Jane Gale Hughes, whose Canadian national magazine — as small in size and apparently unsubstantial as a TV Guide — was called Homemakers.

Its name was misleading, suggesting anodyne chitchat.

Quite the opposite!

Jane, extremely rare for any editor who hopes to keep their job, had to fight the advertising department because, of course, the advertisers of the products being tested would object and pull their lucrative ads.

The ads whose revenue paid her salary and my freelance work for her.

She ran my story anyway and I’m really proud of it and grateful for her belief in me as a younger journalist to produce it.

This tension between money and truth-telling never goes away.

In 2005-6, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest paper, I did a huge investigation of the cruise ship industry.

What I learned persuaded me to never take a cruise.

Of course, the editor refused to run my stories — for fear of losing their ad dollars. They finally ran one-half of my work.

 

Journalism matters!

 

Every story that digs deeply.

Every press conference — pure theater! — during which smart journalists ask challenging, tough questions, even in the face of sneers, insults, pompous political lectures and hostility.

It all adds up.

It must.

Jose and I are soon at the tail end of long and challenging and satisfying careers in journalism. We remain deeply passionate about the need for intelligent, analytical, critical reporting on  every aspect of life.

But both of us were cautioned — long ago — to remember that even a lifetime of our committed excellence, even for the largest and most influential outlets, and all the work of all our talented colleagues, is the equivalent of water drops on stone.

One at a time.

Each story — each image — only a drop.

How can it matter?

Drop after drop — repeated over and over and over and over — as we and others continue the work, and stone wears away.

 

Tough love for tough times

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone with a green card, I can’t vote — so my enthusiasm for how New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is handling this crisis will carry no political weight.

But every morning now, at 11:30 a.m. EDT on weekdays and noon on weekends, we watch his 30-minute press conferences, live, and listen to another 30 minutes of questions from reporters and his replies.

Jose , (my husband), spent eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer, covering Presidents Reagan, GW Bush, Clinton. He’s heard plenty of political spin and is not easily impressed, but is a huge fan of Cuomo’s handling  of the COVID-19 crisis — and New York City is the hardest-hit city in the United States.

Unlike the joke in the White House, Cuomo — another born-and-bred New Yorker — doesn’t bullshit or blather on about how great he is.

Nor does he insult the press corps, whose job it is to question every elected official and keep them accountable, as 45 does, most recently telling two veteran reporters: “Don’t be a cutie pie” and “Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”

During the conferences, Cuomo’s team also shows viewers clean, clear graphics with the numbers of infected, where, in the hospital, recovered — and dead. He explains who is most likely to die from the disease and why.

We live in a small suburban town, so density and crowding are less pressing for us than in the five boroughs of New York City.

Yet the state’s patient zero lives in a suburban town on the other side of our county. He went to synagogue (infecting many), traveled into the city by commuter train (more) and went about his business there (more again.) He’s alive and out of the hospital.

In the past few days, the National Guard equipped the enormous Javits Convention Center on the western edge of Manhattan as a hospital with 3,000 beds.

The Javits Center is an amazing facility,” said Semonite, [Gen. Todd Semonite, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers.] “Every 10 feet there’s a great big steel door in the floor, you open it up in there is all the electrical; there’s cold water, there’s hot water and there’s a place for sewers, so you can actually do things like sinks, right in the middle of a convention center to be able to make that happen.”

The hospital will be staffed by 350 medical personnel from FEMA and 600 medical personnel serving with the two Army hospitals.

Non-COVID-19 patients will be transported from hospitals in the New York City area to the convention center, just as they will be at the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship the USNS Comfort when it is operational in New York Harbor on Tuesday.

 

Here’s a New York Times piece about Cuomo:

 

To the surprise of many who did not associate the name “Andrew Cuomo” with the word “empathy,” the governor has become a sort of national shrink, talking us through our fear, our loss and our growing stir-craziness.

“This is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,” he told officers from the New York National Guard on Friday, charging them to fight this “invisible” and “insidious” beast and “kick coronavirus’s ass.”

Because New York is at the epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, with 519 deaths and 44,635 confirmed cases, as of noon Friday, Americans have their eyes on the state. Cuomo knows this. “New York is the canary in the coal mine,” he said during one of his passionate televised pleas for the president to provide more ventilators.

It is more than passing strange that in this horror-movie moment, with 13 people dying on Tuesday at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and a refrigerated truck parked outside to collect the bodies, the nation’s two most prominent leaders are both Queens scions. Both men grew up in the shadows of their fathers, the hard-working sons of European immigrants.

The Trump family is a model of bad nepotism — noblesse oblige in reverse. Such is their reputation as scammers that congressional Democrats felt the need to put a provision in the coronavirus rescue bill to try to prevent Trump-and-Kushner Inc. from carving out a treat of their own.

And, from New York magazine:

Cuomo, most definitely, is not a fan of Trump:

“Government, presidential elections, it was tweets, it was all one-liners, it was all personality, character, celebrity. That’s what politics had become. And all of a sudden you have changed the lens,” he said while an aide brought him a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. “Government is about real capacity and real consequences and really knowing what you’re doing and real leadership. Elect the people who know what they’re doing, because you elect somebody because they are a celebrity, or because they have a great slogan, and then you ask them to perform. What do they say?’ ‘I never told you I could perform. I told you I was good looking. I told you I tweeted a lot. I told you I had a great slogan. I never told you I was competent.’ And by the way, it’s really serious. It’s not about celebrity and slogans. That is a stark shift. This is government at wartime.”

 

And, in a lighter vein, this from Michelle Collins, in Marie Claire magazine:

 

But the one thing I do have to look forward to every day like clockwork has been New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings at 11 a.m. (Sometimes he’s late, and starts them at 11:30. I’ve started referring to this waiting time as “Cuomo FOMO.”) Like a velveteen gravity blanket for my soul, the second I see this man’s perfectly weathered face and tousled curls, the moment his Pacino-like accent fills my living room with its mafia-like authority, my blood pressure drops, my breasts seem to perk up on their own, and a tingly feeling of optimism washes over my imprisoned body as I think to myself… I think we’re gonna be okay.

Also: I think I’m in love with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

 

Getting through this

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We need this tree’s determination to thrive. Split rock, as needed.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not a joke or a hoax.

It’s forcing everyone to re-think every element of our lives: work, relationships, employment, money, access to government aid, education, worship, mourning, celebrations, trust in government, the safety and reliability of medical and hospital care.

Many people have died. Some are very ill. Some wonder — without easy access to testing — if they’ve even been infected with COVID-19, its now official name.

 

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It’s forcing Americans, especially, to behave in ways that run counter to how they’ve been socialized for decades — i.e. to behave as individuals, to behave as they please, free of most government interference, (but also government aid.)

Writing in this week’s New York Times, Donald McNeil says:

Is that what some countries are missing? This sense of collective action and selflessness?

That is absolutely what many Americans are missing — that it’s not about you right now. My parents were in the World War II generation and there was more of a sense of, “Hey, we did something amazing; we ramped up this gigantic societal effort.” It was this sense of we’re all in this together.

We’ve got to realize that we’re all in this together and save each other’s lives. That has not penetrated yet and it needs to penetrate because we all have to cooperate.

 

 

When you grow up not giving a damn about “the other” — people unrelated to you or you’ve never met and why would you even consider universal healthcare for the “undeserving”? — a pandemic throws this thinking out the window.

The nation’s addiction to capitalism and for-profit healthcare and limited government has also led to this crisis — you can’t keep an economy centered on consumer spending alive when no one is shopping or traveling or buying a house or a car.

The wealthy? They’ve already hopped aboard their private jets, and are safely ensconced in their third or fifth home, like the guy writing to The New York Times who fled New York for his house in Rhode Island.

In a time when Americans have never been more divided racially and economically and politically, this virus doesn’t care.

 

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Like it or not, ready or not, we’re all intertwined now

 

People may look, sound, earn and vote just as you do — and still be carrying and widely spreading this lethal virus.

I finally went out for a walk yesterday on our town reservoir path — lots of people (safely distant!) walking, running, biking. It felt great to be out of the apartment and moving.

It’s no fun being stuck indoors all the time.

It’s really hard not to get irritable and snappish if you share a small space with others.

Yes, people are really disappointed by cancelled parties and weddings and kids’ sports and graduations.

But seriously?

Stay home and be responsible.

We have to buck up.

 

I wish,  more than anything, we could still hear the wise and seasoned voices of those who survived WWII, who knew the kind of shared terror we’re only now beginning to feel — and who can share the mental strength and stamina they all needed to get through it.

 

Here’s my new theme song, from one of my favorite bands, The Talking Heads:

 

 

Climate change: what next?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t repeat the endless warnings I read daily.

If you follow the news, you’re also well aware.

We were back up in Montreal last weekend where I was heartened to see this large street protest — calmly protected by multiple police officers — as students took to to the streets for their Friday school strike.

 

 

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“Don’t adapt — act” …

 

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They were inspired by a high school student far away across the ocean, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, recently profiled by Time magazine as their cover story, extraordinary in itself.

An excerpt:

Castigating the powerful has become routine for the 16-year-old. In December, she addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland; in January she berated billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her London speech was the last stop of a tour that included meeting the Pope. (“Continue to work, continue,” he told her, ending with, “Go along, go ahead.” It was an exhortation, not a dismissal.)

Just nine months ago, Thunberg had no such audiences. She was a lone figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying a sign emblazoned with Skolstrejk for Klimatet (School Strike for Climate). She was there for a reason that felt primal and personal. While Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11, she reacted in a surprisingly intense way: she suffered an episode of severe depression. After a time it lifted, only to resurface last spring.

“I felt everything was meaningless and there was no point going to school if there was no future,” Thunberg says. But this time, rather than suffer the pain, she decided to push back at its cause, channeling her sadness into action. “I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference,” she says.

 

I confess to feeling daily despair over a changing climate wreaking havoc worldwide: floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, incredible heatwaves, all of which are damaging agriculture and the oceans, drying up crucial sources of water and causing millions of people living in vulnerable areas to wonder where else they might possibly live safely.

Indians recently fled a cyclone thanks to receiving in advance millions of warning text messages —- while Ottawa, Canada’s capital, recently coped with the worst flooding in 25 years.

 

No one is safe.

 

What, if anything, are you doing to deal with climate change?

 

Is it affecting your life?

 

Will it affect how you vote?

 

Exposing oneself to millions

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to a reader here, I decided to pitch one of my earlier blog posts as a larger, reported story about medical touch — and my own experience of it — to The New York Times, and it ran today, prompting many enthusiastic and grateful tweets.

Here’s the link, and an excerpt:

It started, as it does for thousands of women every year, with a routine mammogram, and its routine process of having my breasts — like a lump of dough — manipulated by another woman’s hands and placed, albeit gently, into tight compression. It’s never comfortable, but you get used to it because you have to.

Unlike previous years, though, my next step was a biopsy, for which I lay face down, my left breast dangling through a hole in the table. Several hands reached for what’s normally a private and hidden body part and moved it with practiced ease, compressing it again into position for the radiologist’s needles, first a local anesthetic and then the probes needed to withdraw tissue for sampling.

I was fearful of the procedure and of its result and, to my embarrassment, wept quietly during the hour. A nurse gently patted my right shoulder and the male radiologist, seated to my left and working below me, stroked my left wrist to comfort me. I was deeply grateful for their compassion, even as they performed what were for them routine procedures.

 

It is decidedly weird to out one’s health status — let alone discuss your breast! — in a global publication like the Times — but it also offered me, as a journalist and a current patient undergoing treatment,  a tremendous platform to share a message I think really important.

 

I hope you’ll share it widely!

 

 

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Every patient needs to be touched kindly and gently

An ER visit (I’m OK!) — and lessons for women

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I awoke this morning at 4:40 a.m, feeling like my chest was being crushed.

I sat up in bed, trying to focus on whether this was a heart attack, knowing that symptoms are very different for women than men, and because of that often overlooked or ignored.

I had never had one, but knew to pay close attention to my body’s signals.

 

These include:

 

shortness of breath

nausea

dizziness

pain in chest, jaw, back, shoulder and arm

cold sweat

light headedness

 

I felt light headed and, although there is no history of heart disease in my family, I’ve been taking a low dose of cholesterol medication daily for a few years.

We have health insurance and a very good regional hospital that I know far too well from multiple orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000, only a 10 minute drive from home.

The roads were empty at 5:00 a.m. so my husband got me there fast and the  emergency room luckily, had only one other patient in their 30 rooms.

I was quickly given an EKG, X-ray and had four vials of blood taken. The nurse put in an IV line in case (as I did need) they would need to take more blood later.

The pain subsided and within a few hours, thankfully, I was pain-free, if exhausted.

I learned a lot.

If it had been (thank heaven it was not!) a heart attack, specific proteins like troponin-1 are released into the bloodstream as heart cells die. The first blood test showed I was probably fine, but the second one needed to be taken six hours after my symptoms — i.e. I arrived at the hospital by 5:00 a.m. but had to wait there til 11:00 for the second set of blood samples to be taken and results read and shared with me.

I also learned that if it had been a heart attack, I would have been sent to another larger hospital for the insertion of a stent.

I also learned that many people present at the ER thinking, like I did, they were having a heart attack but it was — as we think it was for me — a very bad case of acid reflux, an esophageal spasm. (Very unusually, I had eaten a very small snack at 11:15 the night before. Normally, I know better, and don’t eat anything later than 8:00 p.m. now.)

 

We are very lucky:

— we have good health insurance, so few fear of surprise huge bills for this treatment; we’ll see

— it’s a very good hospital, created by the Rockefellers who live a 10-minute drive east

— we didn’t need the cost of an ambulance (which, we hope, would have been covered); our town has a volunteer ambulance squad as well.

— my treatment was quick, respectful and detailed.

— the hospital was recently renovated so the ER, which we knew too well from a few broken fingers and my husband’s biking concussion, was very different from a few years ago. Now it’s attractive and very comfortable; I was a bit stunned to have a TV screen in the room with me. Each room had an internal privacy curtain and a sliding glass door and an overhead light that didn’t glare into my eyes.

It was so American — each room had a glass plaque by the door with the name(s) of the donors who gave the funds for it.

But I’m grateful as hell for their generosity.

 

If you’re female, please memorize these symptoms — and make sure your partner/spouse and/or family know them as well.

 

They’re easy to ignore or dismiss.