Saying goodbye to my sister

In Shawnee County, Kansas, the fully vaccinated rate is only around 46% where Vashon is at 83%.

Hi Uncle Rick, this is Becky. I have some news about Mom.”

Those are words to dread when your little sister is hospitalized with COVID. Indeed, the news my niece had from Topeka, Kansas, was the worst possible news. As I write this, the doctors say my sister Susan is dying. She is going to palliative care for her final hours.

Susan went into the hospital on Aug. 1. She’s my little sister but she’s 70 years old. She has had some health challenges in recent years and was in a rehab facility. When she developed a cough and fever they tested her for COVID and she was positive.

At first, things went very well at the hospital. She was improving quickly and on the discharge list, as the hospital social worker searched for an isolation unit bed at a new rehab facility. We were joyful because it sounded like she would survive.

Then the good news turned dark. My sister was taken to intensive care on Friday, the 13th. Imaging showed her lungs swamped by COVID pneumonia and she was gasping for air.

Was she vaccinated? Well, Shawnee county, Kansas, is not like Vashon Island. In that corner of Kansas, the fully vaccinated rate is only around 46% where Vashon is at 83%. Just a couple of weeks before Susan was hospitalized, I thought I’d talked her into getting vaccinated, not an easy thing when even her kids weren’t totally sure it was necessary. But no, she was not yet vaccinated. Now it’s too late.

None of us are allowed in the hospital to visit because of COVID safety requirements. So, I’m not giving in to my impulse to get on a plane and get back there. Susan’s daughter, Becky, lives in Topeka but can’t be there to hold her mother’s hand, and Susan can’t comfort Becky either. We hope the hospital can make an exception so Becky can see her mother before she goes. They would rig Becky up with a gown, mask, face shield, and all the rest of the protective equipment. Geared up like that, Becky may be allowed a visit with her mother from the doorway of the ICU room.

Susan Wales, the sister of Rick Wallace (Courtesy Photo).

Susan Wales, the sister of Rick Wallace (Courtesy Photo).

So what’s it like for us right now? Well, I’m fortunate that Susan is still conscious as I write this. The nurse set up a Zoom call so I could speak with her. I was able to reassure Susan that her wishes will be honored. She knows what’s happening to her and has made up her mind about her end-of-life situation and funeral plans.

The roar of her oxygen equipment was like a jet engine blasting away. It was hard for me to understand her and even harder for her to speak. Her nurse moved aside her high-pressure oxygen mask a few times so she could say something to me but her oxygen level quickly plummeted. Her lips start turning blue within a couple of minutes when they unmask her like that. It’s a brutal situation.

I was able to say goodbye over Zoom. It’s a hell of a way to say goodbye to your little sister.

How did Susan get COVID? We don’t know, will never really know. Maybe somebody decided not to mask up. Perhaps somebody decided not to get vaccinated. Possibly, someone went to work with symptoms. Any weak link in the chain could have done it.

Think about that for a bit, just digest the situation. Any weak link in the chain could put any of us in a hospital bed like Susan. But here we are facing another spike, thanks to Delta, and people are pretending it’s all over, pandemic behind us, everything back to normal. I saw people in the grocery store this weekend strolling the aisles without masks. Hundreds of Vashon folks still have not said yes to vaccination, or haven’t finished the vaccination they started.

What a terrible irony. I’m one of the folks who are supposed to help keep the people of Vashon safe. But I can’t keep my sister safe and I can’t keep you safe. Next week, you could be going through what I’m facing now. You could be saying, this is really a hell of a way to say goodbye to your mother, father, spouse, sister, brother, best friend.

You can make a difference. Don’t be a weak link. Call everyone you know who doesn’t want to wear a mask or doesn’t want to be vaccinated. Call everyone you know who thinks this time of dread is over. Ask them to read this.

Rick Wallace is the manager of Vashon Emergency Operations Center and vice president of VashonBePrepared.

Editors Note: As this edition was going to press we got word that Rick’s sister passed away. At the end, the palliative care unit at the hospital made it possible for her three adult children — Becky, Jeff, and Arthur — to get into protective gear and be with her.