“Our family is pretty tight knit… but now we’re all pieces that the pandemic ripped apart.”

Alumnus shares his family’s experience living and coping with COVID-19 restrictions.

family with happy birthday sign
“My mother’s last birthday celebration in May 2019…she was 94 years young. It was the very last celebration for her prior to COVID.” James Gurnard ’77 is pictured third from the left.

In November 2020, my mother was living in a convalescent facility following a surgical repair of a fractured right humerus. We were not allowed in the facility or her room. We would stand in the flower bed and look through her window and see her looking over at us, but without her glasses on. She couldn’t recognize who we were. The room was dark and I imagined that she questioned every hour, “Where is my family?” About a dozen family members would usually visit her at various times during her prior hospitalization and rehabilitation. When I got to talk to her, she actually thought that she was in jail and became very depressed.  She stopped eating, drinking water, and taking her medications. She just shut down.

We were able finally to get her out of that convalescent facility and into a residential care facility home. She began to do better but guidelines further restricted family visitation. And although she had a beautiful room there, due to lack of nutritional intake, lack of family contact, and support, she died on January 5, 2021. A short two months after surgery.

In January 2020, my wife of 39 years was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon afterward, the doctor ordered a PET scan which indicated cancer activity in her spine, hips, and lung. After several biopsies, we were informed that she also had metastatic lung cancer (non-smoker). Then the COVID-19 restrictions began. We were told that it would be just a matter of weeks, but weeks turned into months. During that time, my wife who was very, very, involved in our grandchildren’s life (they lived near us and we took care of them throughout the week) couldn’t be involved with them. Having to deal with two cancers on top of it was too much. We did our best, but with more and more restrictions, I could see the depression.

I worked for about 15 years as a psychiatric nurse, and it was emotionally difficult. When you get a chance to talk about it, you try to keep it under the surface, so you can function and maintain a role where you’re helping others. During this time, we couldn’t celebrate birthdays, holidays, summer vacations– anything like that. There was a lot of detachment, and we tried to take it a week at a time hoping it will be over pretty soon.

Reflecting back on all of this, it’s interesting to discuss these issues related to COVID-19. Our family is pretty tight knit, and we all live close to each other. When the restrictions began, I looked at it like this: we’re now all pieces that the pandemic ripped apart. We’re being kept away even though we’re integral for each other. It hit us hard because we’re each other’s emotional support. My wife’s goal in her life was to care for the grandchildren, help bring them up and work with them in all aspects of their development. But now here we are, more than arm’s length apart, and it was confusing to them since they couldn’t touch their “Mimi” or sit on her lap.

Nobody could actually draw out a worse plan. We were all thinking this will blow over and we will get through this. But when will it blow over? It’s hanging around like a bad storm.

I know they’re vaccinating and taking care of people that are older and have more serious problems. I’m not quite in that line yet, so I’m respecting that. I will get it when the time comes. We’ve learned a lot from COVID: who it affects and is least likely to affect, mortality rates per age group. I think it’s going to influence what we do for future viruses, because no one should be kept apart from their family again.

 

James Gurnard ’77 is retired and lives with his wife in California. He is pleased to report that his family is now vaccinated and things are back to normal, besides the ongoing mask-wearing. He says that “Mimi” is once again caring for her grandchildren and gettings lots of hugs and attention. The depression has lifted.