Birth, Death, and Existential Ambivalence in the Time of COVID-19

By J.P. Hoornstra

I became a father during a global pandemic, appropriately, with a surgical mask covering my face. My wife and I had prepared for the standard Caesarean procedure long before a team of doctors determined it necessary on February 13. Dads are required to wear full surgical caps, gowns, foot coverings, plastic gloves and cloth masks. These now-scarce resources were abundant at 9:06 a.m. in the Labor and Delivery ward of Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

To first-time parents, a C-section is more mystery than marvel. Just before Kai-Rhys Nikolai Hoornstra emerged from the womb, an umbilical cord encircled his neck. He needed several seconds—an eternity—to draw a breath. Everyone present witnessed this drama unfold except my wife and I. During a C-section, a drape divides the operating room on either side of the mother’s abdomen. We couldn’t see the surgical site from which our child emerged, the most transformative moment of our adult lives sheathed from view. Eventually, from our side of the curtain, I could hear a gasp, then a cry. The whirlwind ended with me cutting an umbilical cord and holding a baby. My baby. An hour later I texted a photo of Kai-Rhys to my mother, my sister, my in-laws, my cousins, and my friends. I texted the acupuncturist who helped my wife get pregnant, who had been dead nearly four weeks.

Hyun-Soo “Sue” Chung was 48 years old when her husband, Joseph, strangled her to death in their Koreatown apartment. According to the L.A. County District Attorney’s office, this happened “on or between January 19 and January 20.” The body wasn’t discovered until January 22. I knew none of this when I arrived 5 minutes late for my appointment on January 31. All I had were my suspicions. Some time after the alleged murder, a reporter for the Korean television network MBC contacted me for an interview through Yelp, where I had written a review of Sue’s clinic. The reporter never followed up when I messaged her back. She should have.

My wife and I knew Sue was a domestic violence victim. We had seen bruises on her face and neck before, poorly concealed by a surgical mask. At least once Sue told my wife she wanted to leave Joseph, and why. Naïvely, I could dismiss the possibility of a violent death until the morning of February 13. My son is too damn cute, and Sue had helped us too damn much, not to text me back if she were alive. Eventually, a Google search led me to Sue’s obituary in the Times. My heart reached the pit of my stomach faster than you can say “epidemiologist.”

Eleven cases of Covid-19 had been reported in the United States by February 3. That day, about 24,000 LADWP customers faced a more immediate concern: a power outage. A fierce, cold wind felled tree branches into the power lines dangling above Northeast L.A. My house went dark from just after noon until just before midnight.

For my father, that can spell big trouble. He has lived with emphysema (a.k.a. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, or COPD) for 24 years; an oxygen tank has helped him breathe for the last two. When our house lost power, that meant hauling a 100-pound cylinder of oxygen out of storage, into the house, and plugging in his cannula for God-only-knows-how-long. As it happened, his oxygen supply wasn’t the problem.

Scientists first identified human metapneumovirus (hMPV) in 2001. Like Covid-19, a healthy adult can survive hMPV just fine. The elderly and infirmed might not. A 76-year-old man with COPD looks like a sitting duck in the eyes of hMPV. With candles for light, sweaters for heat, and a virus silently settling into his body, my father grew cold and tired. By day’s end he looked exhausted. By the next morning, his breathing was so rushed and shallow, he couldn’t be awoken. 9-1-1 was called. Paramedics hauled my dad into a waiting ambulance. He hasn’t been home since.

When you are 76 and you have COPD, death does not arrive unannounced. My father filled out an Advance Directive years ago. If this document had been filed with Glendale Adventist Hospital, they would have known my father did not want a breathing tube shoved down his throat, or CPR performed, in order to save his life. If he was a patient of Glendale Adventist, my father would be dead.

The only hospital with foreknowledge of Dad’s wishes was Kaiser Permanente in Los Feliz. Since this was an emergency, there was no time to get Dad to Los Feliz. He was driven instead to Adventist, the closest ER to our house, and a breathing tube was inserted down his throat. Perhaps prompted by the shock to his body, his heart stopped. CPR saved his life. His mind was spared when his heartbeat returned within six minutes. Three days later, Dad was transferred to Kaiser, still unable to breathe on his own power.

Kai-Rhys Hoornstra did not choose to enter a world under the spell of a deadly virus, just as Hyun-Soo Chung did not choose to leave it. I’ve seen Jon Hoornstra struggle with his existence. Some days, he’s as fine as a man can be with a ventilator doing his breathing, a stomach tube providing his nutrition, and a staff of nurses removing his feces. Other days, he’s ready for a morphine injection and a permanent nap.

Kaiser banned visitors indefinitely beginning March 19. It was deemed a necessary precaution after coronavirus emerged in Los Angeles. That night, I was able to bring Dad his laptop. We’ve enjoyed our daily FaceTime sessions ever since. He “met” his first and only grandson this way, on a 12-inch screen in a lonely room. I don’t know what will kill him, the COPD or the loneliness. I hope it’s the COPD. I really miss my Dad.

Judge’s Comments: Touching essay, J.P. Hoornstra becomes a father while he struggles to stay alive during the coronavirus pandemic. With strong details, the reader stands alongside Hoornstra as he contemplates fatherhood and the silent sufferers in the shadows of our communities. This tight essay packs a punch.

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