‘To Isolate, To Rest And Try Not To Die’

Writer Stan Engelsen’s emergency room experience brought back memories of losing a loved one to AIDS in the 1980s.

An image of the author.
Courtesy of Stan Engelsen. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.
An image of the author.
Courtesy of Stan Engelsen. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.

‘To Isolate, To Rest And Try Not To Die’

Writer Stan Engelsen’s emergency room experience brought back memories of losing a loved one to AIDS in the 1980s.

We started out this pandemic with such high hopes. When the state of Illinois issued its shelter-in-place order, my husband, Rick and I, hunkered down. We approached this stay-at-home order as a rehearsal for retirement.

That first weekend we streamed the movie, Auntie Mame (the Rosalind Russel version-obviously) while snacking on Rick’s homemade zucchini bread made with organic, free-range, ingredients picked by union workers, and posted the appropriate pics of our food and movie credits to Facebook. We were the epitome of the responsible, urban, homosexual couple.

Shortly thereafter we both started feeling unwell. The doctor’s advice was stay in bed. He said avoid all contact with other people. The doctor’s primary concern was we might infect someone else. We were told to assume it was COVID-19 and quarantine for fourteen days, but only out of an abundance of caution.

Rick navigated the intricacies of ordering groceries online, which at the beginning of the pandemic was difficult. Grocery stores had not quite gotten the online ordering system worked out.

Also, it turns out that working from home is a lot like working: a fact I was trying to communicate to my staff. Transitioning from the office to working from home was a challenge. I was putting in more hours than if I were in the office.

Not to mention Rick was too sick to get out of bed, which put the burden of cooking and cleaning on me. Work was stressful, concern for my husband was worrisome and cooking and cleaning was burdensome — all while feeling like crap myself. This pandemic wasn’t turning out to be the practice retirement we had hoped for.

A photo of the opening credits of the movie 'Auntie Mame.'
Stan Engelsen and his husband Rick stream the movie Auntie Mame during the first weekend of the COVID-19 Stay at Home order.

After three weeks in bed Rick came to me and said: “I think I should go to the emergency room.”

We headed to the car. I hadn’t driven in over three weeks, and it felt strange to be in the car. I hadn’t even been outside of the apartment for weeks. It didn’t help that my heart was racing, my head was spinning, and my hands were shaking. I took a couple of breaths.

When it comes to emergency rooms, I have a little PTSD. I accompanied my first husband, Chris, to the emergency room dozens of times. Technically he wasn’t my husband. Men couldn’t marry each other in the 1980s. Chris had AIDS, and our last emergency room visit ended with his death.

It was a gloomy, rainy April morning. The dull swoosh of the wiper blades was an added distraction I did not need. There was no traffic which normally would be a bonus but it just added to the gloom. It was the middle of a weekday, but five weeks into the shelter-at-home order and the streets were deserted. It felt apocalyptic.

I didn’t know what to expect pulling up to Illinois Masonic Hospital. Would there be lines of people? Was there chaos? But it was surprisingly quiet. They let me leave my car in the driveway turnaround. Which is absolutely unheard of. One thing about the pandemic — hospital parking was amazing.

They took our temperature as we came in the door using a thermometer they ran across our foreheads. They gave Rick a mask (we didn’t have masks because they were impossible to get in those first few weeks), but the hospital didn’t give me one because they were trying to conserve them.

The emergency room was eerily empty. The counter had a plexiglass shield, and to talk to the attendant you needed to pick up a phone, like visiting a prison inmate. I thought, “Who else has touched this phone?”

We saw a doctor right away. Rick’s lungs were x-rayed, cat scanned and his blood was tested in several directions. He was not, however, tested for COVID-19.

The doctor said, “We are only testing patients that are being admitted to the hospital, and you are not sick enough to be admitted.” The message was there are not enough tests, and there was nothing they could do anyway. He went on to say that even if he tested positive for COVID-19, it was not actionable information. The medical advice would be the same: Go home, rest and avoid contact with other people.

Test results that are not “actionable” brought back memories of the AIDS crisis. There was a lot of debate around whether to get tested for HIV. A positive HIV test result also had no “actionable” information. There were no treatments. It was considered a death sentence.

We left the hospital with no diagnosis and orders to isolate for two more weeks, to rest and try not to die. OK, they didn’t say, “try not to die,” but it was implied.

Rick spent a little over three months in bed. He slowly recovered. He went to many doctors and had many tests, and nothing conclusive was ever decided. The infectious disease specialist said, “We have to assume it was COVID-19.”

Rick found a group on Facebook who call themselves long-haulers, people with similar symptoms to Rick, some who tested positive for COVID-19 and others, like Rick, who did not.

The other day I came home from the office and was greeted with the sweet aroma of baking bread. Rick yelled from his bedroom office, “I decided to make zucchini bread.”

In the end we followed the medical advice of our doctors — we went home and did not die — and the cinematic advice of Auntie Mame, “Live! Live! Live!”

About the author: Stan Engelsen grew up in the south suburbs, graduating from DePaul University and later Northwestern University, and aspires to be a writer but in the meantime has landed comfortably in a real estate career.

Mariah Woelfel produced this story for audio. Follow her @MariahWoelfel. Jessica Martinaitis and Mary Hall produced this for digital. Follow them @jess_morgan and @hall_marye.