Parents’ ‘porch stories’ are a reminder of what matters in today’s crises
My parents, ages 97 and 95, have placed two beach chairs on their front porch in Nassau County, N.Y. Every week, my wife and I visit them there to absorb some of the wisdom of the ages. Some of what they have told us became the basis for the “porch stories” which I have related in my book, “COVID: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”
These conversations have been wonderfully interesting and revealing. Most importantly, however, they’ve reminded me of a greater truth about our difficult situation today.
My parents returned a few months ago from Florida where they overcame COVID-19, possibly with the help of hydroxychloroquine. They are facing the pandemic not with fear but with courage. Despite their ages, they have never believed in lockdowns and they still wear their face-masks reluctantly, although they do wear them.
Wisely, they are more concerned with the tremendous, varied costs of lockdowns than with any proven benefits. They know that the world they have inhabited for almost a century is being badly damaged and that it may get much worse. Most of their favorite restaurants on Long Island are now closed; they mostly order takeout. They can’t go to the movies or to the theatre; they rarely see their friends.
Despite their documented antibodies against the virus, my visits are always fear-driven and brief. I stand more than six feet away from them at all times, and wear a mask for good measure. I’ve come to realize that I am more afraid of COVID-19 than my parents are.
My father was an aeronautics engineer and is solution-oriented. He still credits hydroxychloroquine for saving his life, despite its conflicting reviews and results and its controversial nature. “They have studied it at the wrong time,” he told me at one point. “When people are already in the hospital. When it’s too late to do any good.”
“You may not be wrong, Dad,” I agreed, having seen several patients improve after taking this drug over the course of the pandemic. Just this past week, a government official I know was suffering from a cough and fatigue from COVID-19; he took the drug and felt better five hours later. Such stories are still not proof, of course, I explained to my father: “They need to study it more, early in the course of treatment.”
Out on the porch, on one visit, my mother suddenly brought up the subject of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic and how an older brother, Leonard, died as an infant several years before she was born. Leonard had an ear infection but couldn’t get to a hospital in time for life-saving surgery. “The hospitals were full,” she recalled. “Same as now.”
Back then, she remarked, “the biggest tragedy was people dying of other things, not just the dreaded disease. Haven’t we learned anything since then? How many have we lost to other causes besides COVID? Why are we never prepared?” It’s a question I can’t begin to fully answer, unfortunately.
On another visit, I mentioned to my father that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “told me you should still have the vaccine, even though you’ve already had COVID and have the antibodies.”
“Let him take it,” my father — who always has been a bit distrustful of big government — responded to this wise advice from one of the country’s most recognizable, most respected health officials. “I took the swine flu vaccine in 1976 and I was sick in bed for three days afterward, and my memory hasn’t been the same since.”
“But that was a pandemic that never happened,” I replied. “This one is real.”
“Will you take the shot?” he asks, and when I nod yes — “Just as soon as it comes out” — he agrees to take it, too.
Like so many people across America, the three of us — my parents and I — are sharing courage against COVID-19 out on their porch. My father is impressed by all of the biotechnology that has arisen out of the pandemic, from the development of rapid point-of-care testing to monoclonal antibodies to Operation Warp Speed’s pursuit of a vaccine. “These are great accomplishments for science,” he says, and “it doesn’t matter who gets credit for them.”
Yet, as important as these scientific accomplishments are, they are not the only things that will carry America through this terrible pandemic. As I’ve come to realize from these porch-story moments, surviving COVID-19 — and all of the other crises our country faces at this moment — will require the strength of character, the courage and determination, the hope and optimism, the occasional challenging of conventional or official wisdom, the love of and commitment to family and to the wider community, the belief in ourselves and in our country, and all of the other individual and collective traits that have made America a great nation.
Two weeks after this visit, my parents are scammed out of $8,000 by a coterie of criminals who come to their porch and falsely claim that my son is in trouble and needs money for bail. Such scams are becoming more commonplace during this pandemic, as profiteers and criminals manipulate our fears. But there is a silver lining: Rather than think of my parents as gullible victims, I think of their kindness and love for my son.
This is the way forward in today’s coronavirus world, no matter who wins today’s elections. We need to stop all the dogma and ridicule, to rely on science, and to relearn how to care about each other regardless of political party — and to revisit those individual and national traits that have always served us so well — in order to get past COVID-19.
Marc Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of medicine and medical director of “Doctor Radio” at NYU Langone Health, is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book “COVID: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.” Follow him on Twitter @drmarcsiegel.