A COVID-19 death in the family

Going by the common belief in the law of averages, the pessimist in me worried that COVID-19 could anytime inflict a fatal blow on our large family. I used to tell myself how lucky we were that the few in our family who tested positive at different times since last year experienced only mild symptoms. This we regarded as a blessing, for which we have repeatedly expressed our gratitude by setting aside funds that would have been used for medical expenses to take care of the needs of those who have been less fortunate.

My worst fear, however, came true last Wednesday, Oct. 27, when my brother Dante succumbed to the dreaded illness despite being the first in our family to be fully vaccinated, and despite the extraordinary precautions he took to avoid getting infected. He was aware he had weak lungs and suffered from chronic asthma. So, he mostly stayed at home.

About four months ago, he decided to check into the hospital for a surgical procedure to address an abdominal problem that had long bothered him. It was starting to cause him severe pain. The risk of catching the virus during confinement, however, worried him more than the procedure itself. The surgery went well, and he proceeded to spend the next three months recovering at home and patiently waiting for the surgical wound to completely heal.

Early this month, he had to return to the hospital so his surgeon could relieve him of the ileostomy pouch with which he had been provisionally fitted to drain intestinal waste. It was a much simpler procedure. He so looked forward to being able to go back to his normal routine that he could not wait to have it done as soon as possible.

After staying in the hospital for five days, Dante was happy to be home. He was however nursing a mild cough. Although the thought of the virus was always at the back of his mind, he attributed the coughing to a mild bacterial infection, for which his doctor had actually prescribed him an antibiotic. Prior to entering the hospital, he had tested negative on the PCR test, so he felt confident it wasn’t COVID-19. Unfortunately, he wasn’t tested again before he was sent home.

The mild cough progressively worsened, and soon it was producing the same wheezing sound my brother had long associated with asthma. What he didn’t know at that time was that his pulmonary system was already being attacked by the virus and swamped by the dreaded cytokine storm generated by the body’s own immune system.

By the time he was wheeled into the ER a few days later, his oxygen saturation had fallen to alarming levels. The swab sample taken at the ER confirmed the presence of the coronavirus. Indeed, subsequent PCR tests showed it had spread to other members of his immediate family as well—his wife, his daughter, his son, and daughter-in-law.

On the third day of his final confinement, Dante called me from the ER, where his wife Day kept him company. I was alarmed to see his mobile number flash on the screen of my cell phone. As soon as I answered, his voice broke. I could hear his labored breathing. He told me he was about to be sedated and intubated. He sounded as if he was asking me what I thought. He had been trying, he said, to reach our brother Bishop Ambo to ask for prayers. He might be saying Mass at this time, I told him. I assured him that everything would be all right, and not to worry. Mercifully, Ambo was able to catch him and pray over him just before he was put to sleep.

I knew it was the moment Dante dreaded most. I do, too. Many years ago, we saw our father helplessly struggle against the fog of sedation while under intubation — just to be able to acknowledge the faces of his children as they surrounded his hospital bed. I am sure it felt like drowning in the middle of a dark ocean.

There’s a lesson here for us who are of a certain age and must deal with chronic health conditions. While this pandemic remains with us, there are certain symptoms we can no longer afford to ignore. COVID-19 has been shown to mimic many familiar respiratory conditions; that is how it manages to hide itself. In my case, even a simple common cold, which usually begins with an itchy throat, can quickly progress to pneumonia. A consultation with the doctor has become indispensable; a chest X-ray is now essential. At the very minimum, a PCR swab test can go a long way in alleviating our anxiety in the face of this still largely intractable disease. I know that vaccination is a must, though I am no longer sure what being fully vaccinated means.

The fifth of 13 children (of whom I am the eldest), Dante was 69—just 10 days short of his 70th birthday. I can’t help but lament the biological unfairness of surviving a much younger sibling. I thought he deserved to live a little longer, although he himself was never sanguine about it. I remember how he welcomed every year after he turned 60, treating it as a bonus. The reason for this is that he saw himself in the image of our father, who died just before he turned 60.

Among us, seven David brothers, it was Dante who looked most like our father. They had the same mannerisms, the same love for gardening and classical music. They were both fond of traditional Kapampangan dishes, and it made them happy when a visitor would bring them some long-forgotten delicacy. And, of course, they were both devoted lawyers who enormously enjoyed their work in the courtroom and in the porch of our house in Betis where, every weekend, they gave pro bono legal advice to those who were burdened by legal worries. They were generous to a fault.

Dante was the caretaker of our roots in Betis. Our old house, which he took pains to restore as a homage to our ancestors, won’t be as warm and as welcoming without his assuring presence.