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We must fight the virus, not one another

She had an urgency in her message, as if what she had to say were a matter of life and death.

Because it was.

Terry Novak has seen a lot of both in her decades as a nurse. She has watched new life flood into the faces of kidney transplant recipients, seen life ebb in the bodies of cancer patients, borne witness to the struggles of burn victims to breathe without agony.

Through it all, she has learned what hope is.

And now she is watching this pandemic-addled country lose it.

She is, too.

“Now I am experiencing this overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness as I read every day of all the lives affected, locally and nationally, directly or indirectly, by this relentless, merciless virus,” Novak wrote in an email last week. “As I write this we are less than six months into this battle and we’ve lost over 135,000 lives. Hundreds of thousands more have had the virus and are in various stages of recovery and healing. Many more have the virus but aren’t yet showing any symptoms but still contagious. Others have suffered collateral damage – loss of jobs and income, the fear of losing their homes and/or businesses, isolation from family and friends. Most of us know at least one of these people.”

This week, the U.S. passed the 140,000 death mark. And yet it seems to Novak and others that the response has been muddled and divisive from the top echelons of government to the mask-opposed people in the community.

War should have been declared against COVID-19; instead we are warring with one another.

“Some of our leaders are trying to do the right thing, and then there are others who are blatantly ignoring what needs to be done to stop the spread of this virus,” wrote Novak, who graduated from nursing school in 1977 and retired in 2017. “Some citizens are being responsible, trying to do the right thing by wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands, only to be infected by someone who thinks they are above the mandates and guidelines or they’re in some way immune to this killer among us, or, even worse, think this is all a hoax.”

She encountered one naysayer recently in a store in Bernalillo, a woman – a teacher, Novak heard her say – with her mask around her chin, chatting and chuckling and spewing particulates at the checkout.

“‘Please pull up your mask,’ I said to her,” Novak told me in a phone conversation. “And she turned to me and said, ‘Mind your own business.’ ”

Novak wanted to tell her that it is her business. That it is everybody’s business.

“Each of us individually has the responsibility and the power to defeat this insidious enemy,” she wrote. “Legislation by itself will not defeat it. Politics and politicians will not defeat it. We humans can defeat it by our own collective conscious awareness, by our actions committing to choose to be part of the healing and recovery instead of contributing to the continued devastation. We can choose to see the wearing of a mask as a symbol of respect for those who lost their battle and a symbol of support for those still battling either on the front line or behind the scenes. The inconvenience of wearing a mask and social distancing is worth saving someone’s life or our own.”

For 10 years, Novak worked with patients undergoing Phase 1 clinical trials at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center. Hers were the patients who had exhausted all other treatments, and most of them did not progress to Phases 2 or 3.

“These patients knew they weren’t going to live long, but those who came to believe that their experience could help others came to a place of hope,” she said. “I saw first-hand how hope could effect the way someone lived with and survived their illness or how hope gave them peace and closure as they lived their final days.”

She was consoled by the belief that these people hadn’t lived or died in vain.

She believes the same is true for those who have died because of COVID-19, the countless others who survive with yet unknown side effects and those who suffer from the trauma of these strange times.

“They are real people who had their own hopes and dreams, who thought something like this could never happen to them in this country,” she wrote. “This is something that happens ‘over there,’ far away from us, not here in this land of plenty.”

There is no “plenty” now, she wrote, except plenty of tears, heartbreak and loss.

But there can be hope, she wants to believe, the kind her cancer patients showed her when they accepted what was and that their sacrifice benefited others.

If that hope means wearing a mask, staying home and social distancing, that seems little to ask.

“We have to see this as a human pandemic, not a political maneuver or manipulation,” she wrote. “Real lives are at stake. We should be outraged and vowing to do everything we humanly can to defeat it instead of empowering it by our denial, defiance and/or ignorance.”

Novak’s letter ended with her urgent plea.

“Please help to turn the tide and stop the momentum of this insatiable killer,” she wrote. “Every life lost is the loss of a possibility, a dream, a hope they may have brought to the world. Don’t let their and our loss be in vain. This is everyone’s battle. Let’s unite and defeat this foreign enemy among us.”

I could not have written it better.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.


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