Coping with coronavirus, week eleven


With the coronavirus forcing much of the public to stay at home, these are unusual times in West Marin. Now nearly three months into a shelter order, many are feeling thankful for what they have. Alongside our coverage of the pandemic, the Light is offering windows into the lives of our readers. This week, we talked to a medical insurance provider, an art teacher and an elder. 

Feeling connected 

This spring, Anne Menke, who sits on the boards of the Coastal Health Alliance and the Tomales Bay Library Association, was sick for months with symptoms that resembled Covid-19. An advisor for a San Francisco malpractice insurance company, she returned to her Inverness home from a work trip to Columbus, Ohio, on March 1, and immediately fell ill. She tested negative for Covid-19, which presented something of a mystery because her symptoms lined up—difficulty breathing, coughing, and an altered sense of smell. “My asthma physician and primary care doctor sent me to the E.R.,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to the E.R. I thought, ‘That’s where I’ll get [Covid-19].’” She said her experience in the hospital was surreal: “Just to be the only one in the emergency room was wild. I was in the isolation room, and everyone was gowned and gloved. They did a test through a glass wall.” After receiving a new type of asthma medication through a tube, “15 minutes later, I thought, my god, I can breathe again,” she said. In the hospital, she came clean on a variety of other tests that help diagnose Covid-19, including a lung scan. She was ultimately diagnosed with a severe bout of asthma, a condition that had never given her such trouble. Test accuracy for Covid-19 varies, with some tests shown to have up to a 30 percent false negative rate, but Ms. Menke’s doctor said false tests are rare for patients experiencing acute respiratory symptoms. Ms. Menke returned home after a short stay in the hospital, but remained weak and winded; several weeks ago, she finally felt well enough to pick up her job again remotely. In the meantime, friends and community members—“people I don’t even know that well,” Ms. Menke said—stepped up enormously, delivering meals, groceries and medications, and checking her mail. Ms. Menke said she’s still adjusting to the experience of not being able to completely take care of herself. At age 67, she’s always been active and healthy; overnight, she felt she had become “old and expendable.” She added, “I may not really want to be in public for a long time. And I hate that, that it will never probably really be the same in my lifetime. I won’t want to travel. This is a game changer for older people.” Above all, however, she remains grateful. “I realized, I’m really fine: I have a job; I have health care,” she said. “How extraordinary that the entire world is going through a similar, but not the same, experience. I have felt such a deep connection with everyone who is suffering.” 

Juggling it well

Colleen Conley, an art teacher for Shoreline Unified School District, is holding onto her routine. “I feel better personally when I do my usual routine—wake up and leave the house, drive down the bay,” she said. “I get to say hello to some of my peers and check in with them.” A district employee for more than three decades, Ms. Conley is one of around 10 employees still going to the West Marin School campus to work; most teachers also drop in a few times a week. “The biggest change for us is not being with the kids,” she said. “I miss them. I miss all the kid activity. It’s hard to be there without them. But I don’t mean to whine, by any means: I feel very fortunate I have a place of work to go, even with physical distancing.” Ms. Conley is in charge of art assignments from kindergarten through eighth grade; she records a video of herself making the assignments, and students complete the work on Fridays. Ms. Conley says she has two motivations for the assignments: to get kids outside and off the computer, and to use materials that everyone likely has access to in the home. “Parents are sick of the computers, and so are the kids,” she said. “So, go outside for a minute and try to draw a bird, and then break that down into shapes. Either by looking at my drawings or just showing my hands, I show them things they can do out-of-doors and off the computers.” Ms. Conley is the only one in her household who held onto her job: her son’s new kayaking business is on hold, and her husband’s musical career is stalled. She said she worried about them. “Work is how we determine who we are to ourselves, and how we see [ourselves],” she said. While she supports her family members as they grapple with the uncertainties, she said they are helping her cope with what has also changed for her, albeit in more inward ways. “If I have just talked to my grandkids and I’m emotional, then I get a hug. Or maybe I’m really frustrated with my computer and want to throw it out the window. There is sympathy. We juggle it well.” 

Joy in aloneness

We all have something to learn from Nicolene Gomes, an 83-year-old sheltering alone in Inverness, where she has lived most of her life. Her story is unusual: after coming to the United States from Ireland at age 6, she was raised in Inverness as an only child by a domineering, adoptive mother who kept her isolated and did not let her go to school until she was 14. “I didn’t know who I was, I was kept away from everyone, and like all kids, you think it’s your fault,” she said. At school, she realized her hair was too long and her clothes were all wrong; other girls had bobs and poodle skirts. “There were some people who would talk to me [at school]. But I had been stuck in the house with one person—never had been to weddings or christenings or had any idea about any of that—I didn’t have much to say.” For Ms. Gomes, the isolation continued. At age 18, she married a 55-year-old man, and the two stayed in Inverness and had four children; her husband didn’t believe women should have money, go out by themselves, or drive a car. When he died in 1978, she experienced more freedom. She continued to live in the same house her husband had built, but she took drives often. She uncovered new truths about her past, including that she had biological sisters who still lived in Ireland, with whom she now writes regularly. This phase of her life is one of the best, she said, “with no one telling me what to do.” She occupies herself with knitting, drawing, playing a favorite online puzzle game, watching television and reading mysteries. She also talks on the phone—though, she said, “I get so tired of holding the receiver, my arm goes to sleep and I wish there was another invention for keeping it upright so you could still listen.” Since the pandemic started, she misses her drives over the hill to Costco—she called them the “bees’ knees”— but has the help of a caregiver who delivers groceries and helps with the cleaning and cooking. “Because I was locked down for so long, that comes back to me now and I’m not as lonely as other people—I just make do for myself,” she said. Ms. Gomes isn’t concerned with how long the shutdown lasts. “When you’ve been through the bombs [from] Germany, you’re not afraid of very much,” she said. The war has been coming back to her recently, with memories resurfacing: air raids, fallen buildings, walking through ruined streets. “When you’re my age,” she said, “You are better about thinking backwards than about thinking forward. We have all this time; you begin to go back.” She also understands the difficulties others are facing: “They are stuck in this house with this person they used to know when they had things to do, comparing their notes and talking about their days, and now there’s nothing to talk about, nothing fresh or new—unless you are a marvelous housekeeper and a teacher, unless you know how to make things happy, and situations happy.”