Mom 1979

Lessons about the pandemic from Mom’s strokes

This is a picture of my mom at my high school graduation in 1979. It was taken a couple months after she had a minor stroke. Three months later, she would have a series of major ones that left her paralyzed for the rest of her life.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot during this pandemic. As case numbers have spiked, especially among the unvaccinated, I think about her actions before and between her strokes. It reminds me of the dangers of not following the best medical advice, but it also helps me understand why people resist it. While I can’t condone those who refuse to take the vaccine when it is readily available, I can understand why. I won’t ridicule them or say some snarky thing about Darwin, but I also know the dangers of ignoring obvious risks.

We never think anything bad can happen to us. We don’t worry about the holes in the roof when it isn’t raining. And the years leading up to Mom’s strokes provided plenty of warnings we didn’t see or chose to ignore.

She grew up in the “More Doctors Recommend Camels” era when smoking wasn’t just acceptable, it seemed perfectly safe and normal. So was a diet of meats, starches, fats, and sugar. Her father had heart trouble, but it was just assumed that nothing could be done about it. There were no statin drugs. While doctors knew about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet, it wasn’t widely promoted in mainstream culture. We had just won a war, so let’s celebrate with a big, juicy steak, a heaping mound of mashed potatoes, and a cold, refreshing glass of Schlitz!

By the time I got to school, the link between smoking and lung and heart diseases was well known and taught in school. After I learned this in fourth grade, I hounded Mom to stop smoking. I managed to get through to her—for a while. But without cigarettes, she upped her dosage of high-fat food, and her weight went up even higher. Eventually, she went back to cigarettes. “I like the taste,” she told me. (The messages against smoking got through to me. I never smoked, except for a puff of a joint in college and after Dad’s death.)

She started seeing a doctor when she became a single mom and had a job with health insurance. He kept pressing her to do something about her weight and to stop smoking. She would try for a week or two, and went back to her unhealthy behaviors. Granted, diets back then weren’t appealing. They were based on deprivation and shame instead of making better food choices. You had to eat grapefruit and carrot sticks until you reached an arbitrary number, and then you can go back to ice cream and cheeseburgers.

Then, her first stroke hit. In some ways, it was a wake-up call for her. She had to stay home and recover. That took her away from lunches at the Bob’s Big Boy near her office. I don’t recall if she stopped smoking at that point. (She definitely did after she was paralyzed because lighting up became impossible.) But she wound up going back to work earlier than the doctor ordered. Unemployment and disability weren’t paying the bills. Staying home longer might not have made a difference. She may have needed treatments that were not available at the time. But rushing back to normal when it wasn’t safe was a contributing factor and may have made things worse.

This brings us back to today and the pandemic.

It has felt great to take off the mask and go back to amusement parks and baseball stadiums. The last thing we want to do is go back to lockdown. But I will if it will keep my family, my community, and myself safe.

For those of you who have refused vaccination, masks, and social distancing, I know it’s hard to listen to the advice of doctors and politicians—especially when it is wrapped up with deprivation and ridicule. If you want to encourage someone to do something, the worst way is to call them stupid for not doing it. I admit I get frustrated and angry with you, especially because you’re being intentionally misled. When Mom started smoking, doctors knew suspected links between smoking and disease, but cigarette companies downplayed and suppressed them. And today, Fox News personalities will attack vaccines, but the company requires their employees to get them.

But why should anyone tell you what to do? Don’t you have the freedom to do what you want, even if you risk getting sick and dying from it? As my mom said, “I like the taste.” But Mom’s personal choices affected my brother and me. A parent we were dependent on became dependent on us. Her disability sent me in a direction that led to good and difficult things in my life. But not everyone has the options my brother and I had. Having a parent become sick and die from COVID can devastate the children they leave behind.

It’s not easy to make changes, especially when it comes to health. We don’t want to give up our lifestyle, and we resent any busybody who tells us what to do and insists we get something injected into our bodies. But if you don’t want to make changes for yourself, do it for those who love and depend on you. Follow mask mandates and social distancing rules. And if you’re able, get the vaccine. If we listen to our doctors, we can recover from this pandemic. If we ignore the best and well-researched medical advice, the consequences will be devastating, as they were for my mom.

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