With A Return to ‘Normalcy, I Fear Will Be Left Behind’

Writer Suzanne McDonough, whose immune diseases make her especially vulnerable to COVID-19, felt comfort in a world of masks and caution.

A photo of the author, Suzanne McDonough, in front of handwriting
Courtesy of Suzanne McDonough. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.
A photo of the author, Suzanne McDonough, in front of handwriting
Courtesy of Suzanne McDonough. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.

With A Return to ‘Normalcy, I Fear Will Be Left Behind’

Writer Suzanne McDonough, whose immune diseases make her especially vulnerable to COVID-19, felt comfort in a world of masks and caution.

Come back with me to my pre-pandemic world of January 2020.

The Chicago area has just documented its first case of COVID-19. People are beginning to wonder what that means.

I walk up the steps of the Field Museum to attend “A Night of Ideas,” in the Museum’s hallowed halls. Entering the majestic Stanley Field Hall, I glance around. A crowd is congregating. I adjust my flowered mask.

My mask is drawing stares of curiosity mixed with fear. I imagine the onlookers are thinking, “Is she just overly-cautious, a fear monger?” “Maybe she’s really sick with that new virus?”

Nope. In reality, wearing a mask in public is “business as usual” for me.

I have a rare genetic condition that causes my immune system to malfunction. A combination of immune deficiency with autoimmune features leaves my body both more vulnerable to infection and liable to over-react to it.

I’m the perfect host for COVID-19 and its deadly consequences.

However, I’m also extremely prepared for this type of event. Although my illness has been lifelong, I was only diagnosed seven years ago. Since then, my treatment course has been rocky. I’m not able to have immunoglobulin therapy as many do. My recourse has been learning to avoid infection as much as possible. Masks, sanitizer, avoiding crowded gatherings have all become part of my daily life.

A photo of a floral cloth face mask.
Lisle resident Suzanne McDonough’s floral mask she’s worn to protect against immune diseases that leave her vulnerable to COVID-19.

I continually have to balance risks versus benefits. Going to the museum was risky business for me. Following journal reports of the virus, I strongly suspected this would become a pandemic. Being aware the museum’s event would include international speakers, there was a good chance that someone attending had been exposed. Yet, I really wanted to go. So, I donned my mask, refilled my sanitizer bottle and went.

I “socially distanced” as much as possible, staying at the outer edges of gatherings. I withstood the stares from others, feeling embarrassed as usual. It was a wonderful evening and — I didn’t get COVID-19.

In the months that followed, I watched as what had once been my “little world” of caution, fear and survival became the “big world” of COVID-19 for everyone else. I remember going for a walk outside in early April, seeing people wearing masks and thinking, “They’re just like me!” I wanted to shout, “Welcome to my world!”

In this new COVID-19 world, curbside pickup, virtual events and telemedicine appointments have made my life so much easier. And when I do leave the house in my mask, I blend in. No more stares!

But, of course, we all want to see the pandemic end.

Yet, while others are looking forward to eating at restaurants and gathering with friends, I’m looking forward to getting to medical treatment that was delayed due to COVID-19. And although I’m truly delighted that the rest of the world will return to “normalcy” soon, I fear I will be left behind.

So, I ask you, once you are able to take off your masks, walk out the door and move freely again, please don’t shut the door on me. Please continue with as many virtual events as possible. And when I do venture out and have my mask on, please say a friendly hello and remember that you were once part of my world.

About the author: Suzanne McDonough is a writer, chronic illness warrior and former therapist who lives in Lisle with her family and growing mask collection.

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.