Think About It: Unmasked stranger

Husband and I had been out of town for three days preoccupied with the intensity of his going through what would be a life-extending procedure if all went well. I was standing in line to pick up medicine and pondering the preceding days.

We’d been in training for the procedure for two months; training that included multiple medical tests, teeth extractions and three COVID tests.

The procedure was performed at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Coordination of the varied and many steps fell upon me which I took on as the most important job in my life.

Labors of love

We learned in April that husband developed what is called severe aortic stenosis.

In other words, one of his heart valves was giving up. The best prognosis we could get was one to two years of ever declining quality of breath. Needless to say, we felt deep sorrow.

That is until we saw cardiologist Dr. Kara Urnes, who said she was referring husband to Swedish to have a valve replacement through a procedure called Transaortic Valve Replacement or, simply, TAV-R. Turned out he and I weren’t the only ones who thought he was worth saving. The procedure would extend his life five to six years with quality breathing.

A very skilled cardiac surgeon would thread a catheter holding the artificial valve at its tip through an artery to his heart and open the closing valve and put the new valve in place.

We had no idea that science had evolved to repair the heart of a 94-year-old man who was otherwise active and with no substantial co-morbidities that would compromise the success of the procedure or, suggest it shouldn’t be done. His underlying good health for such an old man was what made the referral reasonable.

Given the faith and direction of medical professionals and established medical science, we added our love and drive to be together to the process of qualifying husband stopping only to celebrate the moments he made it over yet another hurdle.

Many readers of this column have gone through similar labors of love in seeing a loved one through the pain of a life-threatening condition and the confounding mysteries of our health system. Those who have will understand when I say my bandwidth for detail planning and coordination was severely stretched as everything turned into a priority. I greatly feared I would forget something essential, an anxiety that was no match for the anxiety I felt watching my courageous husband’s struggle.

The times were intense which only increased as procedure day approached.

Only five days to go and I realized I may have made the worst possible mistake.

Unmasking reveals stranger

Despite the fact both husband and I were fully vaccinated, we were cautious given his condition and the knowledge that a COVID diagnosis would at least delay the procedure. Being fully vaccinated did not preclude COVID testing prior to the procedure.

Despite my due diligence, I missed an important aspect of a planned visit from our handyperson (HP) a few days before the procedure. We knew HP was not vaccinated and we and HP were careful around contact. What I missed was that HP

just returned from a trip to Idaho and Montana, two states with low vaccination rates and increasing COVID due to the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Our own health officers were citing examples of cases, one of which was an unvaccinated person who traveled out of county and brought back COVID. I was horrified that I didn’t think of the increased risk.

I warned my husband to be extra careful the next day, to mask up and keep a safe distance. Husband put off a project that required close contact and told HP that the day would be different.

We knew that HP’s indifference to the risk of catching and passing COVID would change our working relationship in the future; that HP could no longer help us with of the tasks that required indoor time or outside close contact.

When I asked HP why HP didn’t get vaccinated, he began his answer by telling me we were pressuring him, he didn’t like it and wanted it to stop.

I saw defiance cross his face as he verbally pushed me back across the line I had crossed. I bristled but stayed off the line except to stop HP’s explanation which only fed my anxiety for my husband. I witnessed in HP the power of standing ground transcend his otherwise concern for my husband.

Something new crushed my exhausted spirit.

Later that night, husband was as clear eyed as I was in the turn of events that would change this important relationship, but we put it away because all our attention was required for the upcoming procedure which was initiated by a COVID test the next morning.

Fast forward to my ponderings a week later while waiting in line to pick up another medicine. I arrived preoccupied in thought and wearing my mask. I soon became aware that something quite different had taken place.

I was one of the few wearing a mask! I forgot the governor’s announcement of removal of restrictions during the intensity of the last few days.

I took my mask off and before I left the store, I had three people greet me by name. It really felt good to be in contact again and to know my smile was received by another’s.

We know there are other unvaccinated people in our community. We will be careful outside our home and vigilant in it. Husband will continue to wear mask until we are certain he could manage a mild case of COVID.

We don’t know when that will be given the breeding ground in unvaccinated people who may spawn new, more vicious variants of the virus.

In the meantime, we feel extraordinarily lucky to be beneficiaries of highly developed medical science which we think of as a medical miracle.

Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at