Health Care

Reporter’s notebook: Peanut butter, a pen and a pandemic

Katie Jickling
VTDigger health care reporter Katie Jickling reports from a medical surge facility at UVM’s Patrick Gymnasium in April. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

I’ve always been a pacer when I interview. But after 10 months of reporting on health care during the pandemic, I swear I have worn a path along the ugly flecked tile floor of my kitchen.

It is my labyrinth walk of 2020 dimensions — from the upside-down refrigerator drawer that transforms my counter into a stand-up desk, to the opposite wall and back. I know I’ve achieved some serenity when I’m able to refrain from opening the fridge mid-trek.

When pacing fails, or when a source is extra verbose, I sweep the floor. I scurry along the floor with a dustpan, as I ask questions. My floor has never been so thoroughly cleaned; in what may be a loaves-and-fishes-style miracle, nuisance crumbs and dropped raisins seem to proliferate preternaturally.

In between broom strokes, I dash back to my laptop to take notes. 

Health care reporting is inherently about telling stories of the body — of eating and sex, of multivitamins, hand-holding at hospital beds, of the complicated mechanisms we’ve created to fend off the inexorable march of decay. 

During a pandemic, health care is everything, and nothing. We have never thought so much about our bodies: We refrain from touching every surface that’s not glazed with disinfectant. We chafe at proximity with others, and our hands are chapped from washing. When I coughed three times as I fell asleep, it triggered a two-hour nocturnal review of every interpersonal interaction I’ve had over the last two weeks.

At the same time, we have become disembodied, like suspended heads on a stick. The only parts of us that we can be sure exist are those visible over Zoom. This may be why it took me until 10 a.m. one morning last week to realize that I had inadvertently put my pants on backwards.

Journalists favor themselves to be a window for the reader, shedding light into obscured crannies of society. “Let the world burn through you,” author Ray Bradbury advised young writers. 

These days, the world is abstract and distant; the white bare walls of my kitchen and my daily isolation breed a Kafkaesque, existential doubt about what I do for a living. The only thing that burns is the LED light overhead, a glaring halo backlighting my face on Zoom calls. 

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I know full well it is a privilege to bear witness to the worst public health crisis in a hundred years. Covid has forged a deeper intimacy with the people I cover. In March, I listened to health care workers relate their frenetic preparations for Covid surges. Some hardly slept. Anesthesiologist Anthony Fazzone described performing the first intubation of a Covid patient in Vermont. It felt like “the beginning of something really dark,” he said.

Patients who once felt constrained by HIPAA rules or their own self-consciousness started detailing their illnesses with anatomical precision. 

Early on when the virus was still largely mysterious, a likely Covid patient sent me a five-week daily log of his symptoms that included every manner of bodily fluid. “Coughing up mucus with a red/orange tinge,” he wrote one day. This summer, a Covid long-hauler texted me photos of the pus-filled bumps that appeared on her legs. 

But it’s the nursing homes that stick with me: The nurse, who said she fought back tears as she helped a semi-conscious patient FaceTime with her family members for a final time. Dick Dodge, who showed up to Berlin Health & Rehab to call his wife with Alzheimer’s every day this spring, talking to her by phone through the window.

Families confide to me about the horror of watching Covid rage through the elder care homes where an aging parent lives.

I stumble through condolences for those who have lost loved ones, which echo in my head as too trite, too hollow. Amazingly, people talk to me anyway. Rae Rappold shared a letter from her late husband, Mike, after he contracted Covid at a University of Vermont basketball game in March; he wrote to coaches that he was “upset and sorry (p-offed)” that the season was canceled and thanked them for their dedication. He died of Covid before he could send it. 

One mostly-deaf 86-year-old put me on speaker phone and had his wife translate my questions so he could shout back at me about his deceased brother’s uncanny ability to identify the make and model of any car.

The tragedies are myriad. I’m not the crying sort, so I swallow these stories whole. They settle somewhere below my stomach, where they pulse and swell. In between phone calls, I sweep my kitchen. 

I seek solace in sheer physicality, especially as a deadline nears. I do sets of push-ups on the kitchen floor. I chug oat milk straight from the carton. Words escape me.

I have been thinking about Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk-turned-hermit. He socially distanced for more than two decades, I remind myself. He drank a lot too. Not oat milk. Beer.

Devoid of more saintly coping mechanisms — or at least without in-person coworkers to pressure me into socially acceptable behavior — I have taken to eating ungodly amounts of peanut butter. I stick my finger into the jar. In this descent into barbarity that is 2020, bread, or even a spoon, seems extraneous. 

There is an illicit satisfaction in licking the viscous, dripping mess off my hand. 

Then I return to writing, peanut butter fingerprints polka-dotting the keyboard.

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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