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A plea for empathy and action

Erik Unruh, MD, MPH
Special to the Globe
Beverly Ann Unruh, who died of COVID-19 on Oct. 4, 2020, was "a fiercely bright and generous woman," said grandson Erik Unruh.

Eight-hundred and fifty-nine. That is the number of Kansans who had lost their lives from the coronavirus pandemic when I began writing this, and it will be over 2,900 by the time this is published.

My grandmother was one of them.

On Oct. 3, 2020, we said a short 10 minute farewell over Facetime as she sat nearly comatose in her nursing home. The next day she was gone.

My grandmother was 90 years old, far from a spring chicken. She suffered from dementia, and with most visits limited to talks through her window, the pandemic had done little for her quality of life.

In some ways, her passing was a blessing. But it was the process of her dying, alone but for the caring staff at her nursing facility, that I hope no one else has to suffer.

Her husband passed away at this time a year ago. It was a process that was sorrowful and full of grief, but one that we grieved together at his bedside in his final days.

We sat around him, four generations, recalling stories, recanting his wisdom and practicing presence as we watched our patriarch depart. It is a time our family remembers with deep gratitude, the importance of that collective farewell not lost on any of us.

The richness in that gathering now stands in tragic contrast to the final days of my grandmother's life, our family fragmented across the U.S., Grandma alone in her room.

Raised in southwest Kansas, I often crossed our small town to go to grandma’s house.

She would sit me down at her kitchen table, open a Coke for me, and with a surveilling eye ask, “Well, what's new with you?”

Her guidance and example slowly helped form my character and work ethic. She helped me discern a path forward as I contemplated leaving home, college and ultimately a career path.

When I finally decided on becoming a physician, I could hear her smile as I told her over the phone, “It took you long enough to decide, but I always knew you were meant to do it.”

Living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while completing my residency in family medicine, updates of her final days came through texts from my dad: “not eating much today, sleeping lots, fever is better.”

They were tiny tidbits of information but something I would cling to each day. We agonized if we should go there, to sit outside her window, to potentially risk a short visit.

Ultimately, we decided the stakes were too high; I could harbor the virus and spread it to my family, or I could potentially catch the virus and bring it back to spread amongst the patients I care for.

Beverly Ann Unruh was a fiercely bright and generous woman. She excelled at the marimba as a young woman. She married an ornery farmer and veteran.

She taught herself how to keep books and worked tirelessly to raise a family. She cared for her parents as they lived into the twilight of their lives. She showered her grandchildren with generosity.

She spent the majority of her final days alone. It was an undignified way to die, and traumatizing for our family to watch.

We are all tired of this pandemic.

The physical, economic and psychological stress from this pandemic are causing great suffering. I wish it was over too. I wish life could be back to normal. I wish I could have sat with my grandmother in her final hours, to tell her how important she was to me, how she pushed me to go to medical school, to tell her how much I loved her. But my grandmother’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands who have spent their final moments alone.

Our wellbeing is intertwined in the livelihood of each other. We can beat this virus. But it will take all of us. I’ve had people tell me they don’t care if they get the virus, they are ready to meet their maker if it is to be.

In reality, most of us will survive the virus if we contract it. But this pandemic is not just about ourselves; it's about being a good neighbor to those around us. We can protect our most vulnerable by wearing a mask, limiting our travel and getting a vaccine when it's available.

Please, for the sake of our beloved neighbors, recognize our actions are woven together to form this delicate fabric that is the United States.

Erik Unruh was born and raised in southwest Kansas. He is a resident physician at the University of New Mexico in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. He completed his Doctorate of Medicine and Master’s in Public Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Prior to medical school, he completed nursing school at MidAmerica Nazarene University and worked as an emergency room nurse.