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A Trying Journey: Flying and Navigating the Healthcare System during a Pandemic

I am sitting on my deck, editing my book and enjoying the mid-afternoon sun when I get the dreaded call. The call nobody wants to receive. The one we all know is coming but when it does it’s impossible to be prepared.

“Dad is sick, really sick. His strength is - he doesn’t get out of bed. We don’t think there’s much time left,” my little sister manages to say, keeping it together despite the quivering undertone that wants to erupt into an emotional thunder. "The cardiologist said his lungs are filling up with fluid. He is in the final stages."

“I will fly out tomorrow,” I tell her after a conversation that is filled with more questions than answers.

My dad has congestive heart failure. He has had a pace maker for a decade and his heart, despite surgical and medical interventions, is pumping out blood at less than half the rate it should. However, he actively runs a 1,500 organic grain farm, tends to the animals and goes down to Arizona for a couple months to golf, swim and quad under the sunny beautiful open skies. Logically, I know he has a degenerative condition but the strength of his spirit outshines it.


I think about driving for about a nanosecond. It would take us three days to get from Victoria, BC to Regina, Saskatchewan with three kids. This gives me more anxiety than flying during a global pandemic. Anyway, I don’t have the luxury of time, I need to get home. I book a flight for our one year-old, and myself. My husband, Roland, will fly out with the toddler and teenager the following week after he gets our house packed and moved.

I video chat with my three siblings in Saskatchewan as I pack my suitcase, in an exercise that feels foreign and almost forgotten. It has been nine months since I’ve been on a plane - an unheard of amount of time for us.

I take a deep breath as I hold a long black dress in my hands, appropriate for a funeral. I throw it in the suitcase, slam it shut and zip it up so I don’t have to look at the flowing black fabric or think about having the occasion to wear it.

 

The airport, usually filled with the excitement of travel, is still. With my mask on, I push the stroller forward and pull my suitcase behind me. The light shines off the tiled floors in long streaks across the corridor uninterrupted by the feet of passengers and the wheels of suitcases.

There is no lineup to check-in and the attendant is moving at a relaxed steady pace as she chats and smiles with us more than usual. There is an ease of going through security that I am grateful for but I admit, I am mourning the loss of the usual high-energy, slightly anxious endeavor.

The lineups are sparse and the rooms are abundant with space for the few of us here. Everyone wears a mask the entire time they are in the airport and on the airplane, without exception. I feel as if I am in Japan as I watch everyone mindfully walk two meters apart, patiently wait their turn and respectfully and deliberately mind their space and their things.

I feel safer here than in the grocery store. I think to myself as I wait in line at the gate to get my ID checked and temperature taken.

The plane is half to two-thirds full with many empty seats, especially towards the back. I am grateful to have the row to myself, with few people in front or behind me.


Baby girl asleep on the plane


The Calgary airport is busier than the small Victoria one but even so, there is plenty of space to keep your 2 meter bubble intact. I walk around between my flights to stretch my legs and let the motion of movement sooth the baby into a longer nap. Many of the restaurants and stores are closed making it feel as though I’ve taken a cheap red-eye flight but the mid-day sun pouring through the windows is telling a different story.

When we arrive in Regina, there is no frantic hustle to be the first off the plane. In succinct order, the rows of passengers gather their luggage from the overhead bin while everyone else sits patiently in their seats for them to make their way down the narrow airplane corridor. The progression reminds me of emptying pews in church to receive communion.


At arrivals, I am greeted by the open arms of my towering brother smiling through his black mask. He has come to pick us up and drive us the 45 minutes it takes to reach my parent’s farm in the stunning Qu’Appelle valley.


View from my parent's farm over the Qu'Appelle Valley


When we arrive, my mom’s weariness from care giving is put on the shelf and replaced with the excitement of having her children back in the home she raised us in. My dad’s big smile spreads over his face creating rifts and valleys of skin he has earned from years of hearty laughter and hard work in the extreme prairie climate. His strong, deep voice is interrupted with fits of coughing that suck the energy out of him with each constriction.

My big beautiful family surrounding my dad with love and support


I spend every minute of my day, in between changing diapers, feeding and playing with Sydahlia, trying to navigate the health care system in the middle of a pandemic. My siblings and mom are all rallying, trying to figure out how to get the grain harvested, the animals tended to and my dad cared for.

After a week of phone calls with doctors and tests at the local hospital, we are told the only thing he needs is an iron prescription. I look in shock and rage at the speakerphone as this doctor gives us the results of a negative COVID test and inconclusive blood and x-ray results. He can't see the condition my dad is in through the phone.

I take my dad to the ER in the city.

Another week of tests ensue, as my dad gets weaker and weaker. He can no longer hold a conversation for more than two minutes. My sisters and I rotate through his hospital room spending hours every day beside him - advocating, fighting, and asking questions on his behalf.

On the sunny afternoon of my 38th birthday, the doctors tell us we need to prepare ourselves. The CT scans indicate he has lung cancer. They are waiting for the biopsy results to confirm but they are confident in their diagnosis. The prognosis is bleak.


We spend the afternoon in quiet contemplation and deep mourning.

That evening we receive another call. The biopsy results are in. With shaky hands and plump tears in my mom’s eyes, she turns to Roland and I “It’s not cancer. It’s valley fever!”

My mom requested the lab check for this new and rare condition she had heard of through friends in Arizona. None of the doctors had heard of it. It is a fungus that is inhaled through the desert sands and represents itself like lung cancer on a CT scan.

By some miracle, my dad has stepped off death's door. He is on anti-fungal and antibiotic medication, expected to make a full recovery.

What I learned from this emotionally trying journey is that COVID will kill people that don’t have it because it is creating a situation whereby people are not getting the care they normally would. If calls with doctors aren’t cutting it, get to a hospital. If you can fly during this pandemic to reach loved ones and be their advocate, do it.

Stay safe and take care of each other.

 

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