I Don't Know Which Bastard to Be
March 27, 2020 8:58 AM   Subscribe

A dear old friend is dying, and wants me to come see him. I want to see him too, but getting there involves air travel, which seems to be about the most irresponsible choice I could make as someone who would be departing from King County Washington during the COVID-19 pandemic. My head thinks it knows what the correct decision is here, but my heart can't stand it, and neither one knows how to say it to my dying friend.

He's my best friend from high school, someone I spent a huge portion of my youth with, someone who is a huge part of why I am who I am today, someone I simply cannot imagine my past without. He was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given at best a year to live. He has already exhausted his options as far as conventional treatments go, and is now pursuing experimental treatments. In the future looms the prospect of entering an induced coma from which him waking up is no guarantee.

The time I have left to go see him is measured in months at best, but he feels as though it may be less than that. And I want to go see him. I'd be on a plane today if I wasn't living in the northwestern epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since this crisis began, not a single thing I've read about what the individual's responsibility is at this time suggests that getting on an airplane or engaging in interstate travel is in any way acceptable. I've been adhering to the governor's shelter in place order since it went out, and have been working from home up until today, when my furlough of no less than two months but more likely three months time will begin.

I've been trying to gently lay in these facts with my friend when we talk, telling him how fucked up things are up here, telling him I'm about to have no income beyond an unemployment check, maybe, and that my entire company may well not be there in two or three month's time for me to return to. He has been largely sequestered since getting his diagnosis, and has told me he doesn't quite know the exact day to day of the outside world, so I thought if I colored in the situation a bit for him, I might be excused of this choice. He answered with a set of airline prices.

It comes down to a "needs of the many / needs of the few" choice that I am struggling to complete or communicate. I am on the outside edge of the age group that could be an asymptomatic carrier, and my last trip to the outside world was about a week ago for groceries, so I cannot at this time rule out having been exposed the virus. I have a history of asthma, so I cannot at this time rule out my own mortal danger from this virus. My friend has said he's not afraid of it, and why would he be? I don't know how to tell him that I am afraid of it, and that I do take my responsibility with regards to containment seriously without feeling as though I'm dismissing one of his dying wishes. I don't want my old friend to die angry with me, or disappointed in me. I also don't want to carry the plague to his door or his elderly parents' door, though I ache to see them all.

Whether I choose big picture social responsibility or personal love and loyalty here, I feel as though I will be one sort of bastard, or another. Often, deciding which choice best addresses matters of life and death will help me reach a decision, but in this case, life and death are on both sides of the balance. I think that not making the trip is the more responsible decision in big picture terms, but if any of you happen to be medical or aviation professionals or experts who have some protocol for acceptably safe and responsible air travel at this time, I would be most grateful for it, and would pledge to follow it to the letter. This hope seems to me to be a function of the "bargaining" stage of grief however, so the question I have for the hive mind as a whole is, in my position, what would you do, and how would you explain yourself?
posted by EatTheWeak to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you are faced with this. I don't feel like you have a choice, even though it probably seems as if you do. The right thing to do here is stay home as long as picking up and transmitting, and possibly dying from, COVID-19 is a real possibility.

You should not risk your own life even though you ache to say goodbye. You should not risk the lives of others. I'm sorry if this means your friend is angry or disappointed, if he can't understand the current reality.

If it helps any, imagine your trip putting this burden on others who won't be able to say goodbye to their loved ones, because dying of COVID-19 can often mean dying alone because others aren't permitted in the room. You don't want to carry that.

Again, I'm sorry. No one should be faced with this. But you cannot go at this time. My deepest condolences for you and your friend and his family, this is so unfair.
posted by jzb at 9:07 AM on March 27, 2020 [45 favorites]

Could you be a bit more firm in your description that you may be carrying a disease that would guarantee him a painful death gasping for air within a week or two of you visiting him? That you are not willing to carry that burden for the rest of your life, as well as the burden that you may be killing others on your trip to see him.

If he has not been following the news, what we are experiencing sounds like a bad disaster movie. Can you send him articles/footage of what is happening so he understands that this is not an excuse, but for his own benefit? You come acoross as wavering in your question (understandably!), but I think you have to be more firm in your own convictions and communicate them equally firmly.
posted by saucysault at 9:23 AM on March 27, 2020 [7 favorites]

Here's an excerpt from Twitter thread by Andy Slavitt. He posted this last night. Short version: you should stay home.
#StayHome... saves a lot of lives. Here’s how I think about it. If you’re infected & don’t know it (highly likely) and you infect the R0 average of around 2.3 (and that’s being careful), what happens?

After 10 cycles, 4142 people are infected... The case fatality rate is a mystery. Germany with a lot of testing is .4. Italy looks like high single digits. With overcrowded hospitals, it multiplies. Bill Gates says it’s around 1%, but could be 3% with lack of vents. Let’s say 1%. So if you infect 4142 people, that may cause 41 deaths. You’ll never know because there is no contact tracing. Hold that thought— even if you disagree that’s the exact number.

If someone told me if I would be able to save 40 lives if I stayed home, missed school, lost income & missed socializing for 6-10 weeks, I would do it in a second. Everyone would. If it was 4 lives or 1--someone’s mom--we would. For many I know it’s much harder than for me. My point is this— a reporter mentioned how scary this is today. But it’s also empowering. I’ve never had the ability to save 40 lives & impact 40 families like this.

Instead of sitting home feeling like this is pointless, I think about the prize of our sacrifice. 40.
I'm sorry for your friend, and I'm sorry you're having to make this decision. But there really shouldn't be any decision. You need to stay home. Your friend needs to understand that.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:31 AM on March 27, 2020 [42 favorites]

You should not go.

Is there something else you can offer?

It may be that you need to say no in a very straightforward way - and then follow with a new offer, or a diversionary conversation. Maybe something like this:

"I cannot travel to see you without putting you and a lot of other people at risk. Can I arrange to talk to you more often - maybe twice a day?"

"I cannot travel to see you without putting you and a lot of other people at risk. Does it make sense for me to send you my old ipad so that we can see each other on facebook video (or anything that will work over wifi..)?"

"I cannot travel to see you without putting you and a lot of other people at risk. But I've been drawing cartoons of the funniest jokes you ever made. Can I read them to you right now?"
posted by vitabellosi at 9:46 AM on March 27, 2020 [8 favorites]

I wonder if you could arrange to use videoconferencing tools (FaceTime, Echo Show, Zoom, Google Hangouts, whatever) to have conversations that are deeper than telephone but safer than travel. I work at a tech company and we've received a ton of recent reviews talking about how video capabilities have been helpful to people who are struggling for human contact in this trying time.

I am sorry that you are going through this heartrending experience. I think you're right to avoid flying. I cannot fathom how difficult this must be.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 10:00 AM on March 27, 2020 [18 favorites]

Do you have a tablet? Does he? Get connected by Google, FaceTime, Zoom or other video chat. If you don't have matching tablets, fixing that is cheaper than flights. Electronics are a high-theft item, get him a theft control kit - a loop or port that glues to his tablet and a cable to lock it. Some tablets might have a Kensington port where a lock can be attached, many don't

You know it already, but a reminder: any individual act of travel or other form of social interaction is not very likely to result in infection. But in the aggregate, experience and research show that the more social interaction, the more infection. Not being with people we love as they are ill is a sacrifice. Women in NYC can't have their partners present at delivery, people are having surgery with no loved ones able to be there when they get out of recovery, fear and loss are in good supply. I'm so sorry he can't have you with him in person, that you don't get a chance to say goodbye in person.
posted by theora55 at 10:11 AM on March 27, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'm so sorry. I was planning to fly across the country this summer to visit my dad, who just finished a major round of chemo and radiation. Highly unlikely that will happen now.

You cannot go. Please see if you can set up a video, like whisk(e)y suggests. you'll see each other and hear each others voices.

I very sorry :(
posted by supermedusa at 10:12 AM on March 27, 2020 [6 favorites]

Depending on where your friend is located, the hospital may very well refuse to allow you to visit him. You would be at risk of spreading infection not only to him but also to the medical professionals taking care of him who are not expecting to be exposed to the coronavirus in this patient's room.
posted by metahawk at 10:43 AM on March 27, 2020 [27 favorites]

Yes, I was going to say--I'd be surprised if the hospital let you visit. Remember that if your friend is very ill, his anger and disappointment will not be coming from his normal self. Try not to take it too much to heart. It's so hard.
posted by praemunire at 10:49 AM on March 27, 2020 [20 favorites]

This is very hard. I'm sorry for both of you.

What do you think would mean the most for him, if you went? Your presence, as someone to talk to or just be near? Knowing that you made the effort for him, that you meant that much to him?

I wonder if there's a way to make clear to him how much he means to you without you going. Whether by writing to him how you feel about him, or by staying by his side virtually for as long as it takes, or something else. You can't give him your physical hand to hold, but you can still give him your time, your attention, and your effort. Hopefully he'll be able to realize that you're not picking the easy way out here.
posted by trig at 11:17 AM on March 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I Don't Know Which Bastard to Be

Be the bastard who definitely didn't kill anybody.
posted by flabdablet at 11:25 AM on March 27, 2020 [49 favorites]

We lost my husband's mother last week. She was away from home at a sibling's home in another state. And she lives in a completely different state from either of the siblings.

The sibling she was visiting insisted that we ALL immediately travel to her home state to bury her according to their local traditions. The sibling was not pleased when my husband told them that under the circumstances we were not coming : we are both considered high risk, both from an age standpoint and from a health standpoint.

Their "solution" was that their immediate family traveled with her body to her home town and buried her by themselves, with a "family-only" graveside service.

All I can say about that is that sometimes people have trouble thinking rationally when they're stressed.

Don't travel. Do what you can do from a distance to help them feel cared for and to express your affection and appreciation for them.
posted by summerstorm at 11:37 AM on March 27, 2020 [7 favorites]

Is there a medical person caring for him that you could talk to, or who could make clear to him why this isn’t going to happen? If he is in a medical facility right now, even a non-ICU setting, you probably won’t be allowed in. If he is at home and comes in contact with you, *he* may not be allowed in for his treatments. (I have a family member in a similar situation right now and it is a brutal choice.)

Blame the doctors. Video chat, send care packages, whatever. Don’t go.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:06 PM on March 27, 2020 [6 favorites]

My heart breaks for you and your friend. I'm so sorry for both of you, that he's dying, and that he's dying now. You already know what the right answer is, and it makes so much sense that your heart is begging you to second guess yourself.

What can you do with your friend from afar that can give you some of the things you would have gotten if you were together? Can you video chat with a drink? Or carve out some big chunks of hours to play games together or watch a movie or whatever you like to do when you're together?

Acknowledge out loud that it won't be the same as if you were together, and lean into making the most of the situation that's happening. If you can, talk about your feelings. Talk about what he means to you and how much you wish you could be together and how hard this is for both of you. Let it be hard, and let it be a way that you can be together, and human, and vulnerable, and real.
posted by spindrifter at 12:14 PM on March 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I am so very, very sorry you have to make this decision.

Wednesday morning I learned my godfather's cancer is back, he's choosing not to treat, and it looks like weeks or months. I haven't seen him since his last visit to the States eight years ago, for financial reasons. I should be on a plane now. I would be on a plane now. I can't go. Philly's a hot spot. I made an emergency therapist appointment yesterday and cried a lot. She helped me make a plan of what I can do (regular FaceTime/What's App, mailing his favorite cookies). If travel restrictions are rescinded and he's still alive, I will pay anything for the next flight out of Philly, but I won't risk picking something up here, or while traveling, and infecting my family where he is or here.

If this were reversed, what would you tell your friend to do? Do that.
posted by JawnBigboote at 12:16 PM on March 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

This is a super rough spot to be in--I'm sure you know that. I also think you know what you need to do.

If I were you, I wouldn't go and I also wouldn't frame it so much as a personal choice. As others have said, the hospital might not let you visit. I'm not sure about in Washington, but in Oregon the stay home order is a legal one--so it might be literally illegal for you to do this thing. By the time your trip comes around, there might be even more legal barriers, such as around interstate travel. All of this to say: this is really out of your hands at this point. It's not your choice or your desire but simply the truth that you can't go.
posted by overglow at 12:37 PM on March 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

Contact the social worker at the hospital and get them to be the bastard that says you can’t visit to your dying friend. They may be oversubscribed. They may have a form letter they can dash off.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 12:40 PM on March 27, 2020 [8 favorites]

or experts who have some protocol for acceptably safe and responsible air travel at this time

For people with asthma, the CDC is advising "during a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed." The CDC also notes that "crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting COVID-19, if there are other travelers with coronavirus infection," and "your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like coronavirus may increase in crowded settings, particularly closed-in settings with little air circulation."

On March 20, 2020, CBS News reported "If you have asthma, you are among those at greatest risk in the coronavirus pandemic and must take precautions, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) says." On March 16, 2020, TIME reported, "The World Health Organization (WHO) [...] lists asthma, along with diabetes and heart disease, as conditions that make someone “more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.” The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America also lists asthma as a chronic medical conditions which makes one more at risk, noting that asthmatics should “take precautions when any type of respiratory illness is spreading in their community.”"
posted by katra at 12:51 PM on March 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

You mentioned your friend's elderly parents, which got me to wondering if you could enlist them or a sibling to help him understand exactly how dire the situation has become and how impossible it will be, for the foreseeable future, for you to visit. If they're emphatic that noone can/should travel right now, he may hear it better from them. Start by calling them to help you brainstorm things to do that would improve your friend's quality of life and give you some chance to interact, like all the ideas above from sending cookies to gifting him with a tablet.

It sucks when all choices are undesirable.
posted by carmicha at 1:12 PM on March 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

Thank you everyone. This was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made. But as many of you said, this really was not a "choice" in the sense that I had any real power over the situation. If I want to minimize harm, the only course of action is clear without question. Those of you who suggested that I possibly had not yet been unambiguous enough about my hesitation are right on the money. Tonight I sent the messages which made clear that I won't be making any journeys until they're safe to make. He might despise me by morning, he might take me up on the video chat offer, I really don't know. I hope he won't be angry. I'm really fucking sad but I know I made the right call, and I'm grateful for your help in getting me there.

Tell your people that you love them, friends. Tell them right now.
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:50 PM on March 27, 2020 [19 favorites]

He might despise me by morning, he might take me up on the video chat offer, I really don't know. I hope he won't be angry.

Living with the memory of his anger will be less painful than living with the memory of not knowing how many people breaking quarantine could have doomed to worse deaths than his.

You've made a good choice that took genuine courage. If he's the kind of friend that somebody who made a choice like that deserves, it will take him nowhere near the rest of his life to come around from anger to admiration.
posted by flabdablet at 10:32 PM on March 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Everyone has made all the essential, detailed arguments above. I am in general accord -- other situations might be more ambiguous with respect to the best judgment call.

I feel the need to add:

There's one large overarching consideration, one cold, hard indifferent controlling fact. An ineluctable event; something big and sudden that cannot be avoided has happened to the world that is interfering with the plans, intentions, and fortunes of almost everyone; many lives are being upended and wrecked by the economy or necessity if not by the coronavirus directly, as surely as if a large mass had crashed into the planet. For many, recovery will be available, but quite a bit, both large and small, is irretrievable.

Something to keep in mind. Huge bad fortune is the controlling factor here.
posted by lathrop at 7:33 PM on March 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

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