Each day, I take my temperature. A surgical mask dangles from the inside doorknob of my front door. Surgical gloves peek from my coat pockets. Lysol-brand disinfectant wipes ride shotgun in my car’s passenger seat.
Unlike most Americans, these are old habits for me. They are practices scorched into my psyche during my last house arrest. That’s when I spent five months trapped inside an apartment tending to my son’s cancer.
In 2005, my son George was 5 years old when massive doses of chemotherapy quickly hammered his blood cancer into remission shortly after diagnosis. But keeping the leukemia at bay required constant doses of the same harsh medicine that also smashed his immune system to bits.
Anytime he went outside, his life was on the line.
In short, he had no “armies.” That’s what George called his scant troops of disease-fighting white blood cells. He lacked any vital antibodies, or disease-fighting experience, to stomp out the slightest infection.
George’s body could not fight. A snotty nose could drain to become yellow phlegm in his lungs that might bloom into an infection and fatal sepsis in three days. How do I know that? I stood with helpless families of some of his friends, other immunocompromised children, who died like that at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky.
Just like now for the coronavirus, fever was the warning sign. As a result, I stashed thermometers in my pockets, purse, and vehicle. I whipped one out, day and night, at any sneeze, cough, or sniffle. If George showed a fever higher than 101 degrees, we raced him to the hospital. To prepare for this common occurrence, my trunk carried suitcases packed with clothes and toys. One time we arrived at the hospital from a KFC parking lot where George spiked a fever and started vomiting halfway through his quarantine treat of drive-thru fried chicken. Then, like every time, doctors tossed his sickly body into a hospital bed, inserted an IV loaded with guerrilla antibiotics (just in case!) and cranked up a three-day series of exams, hydration, bed rest, and quarantine.
In the spring of 2006, doctors told us George’s marathon chemotherapy was ending. His immune system would recover enough to return to school. The leukemia treatment protocol continued for 3½ years until he was 9. We still kept the thermometer and the suitcase handy. “Chemotherapy-lite,” as I came to call it, still induced occasional house arrests, each one lasting no more than a few days.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to herd all Americans indoors last week, I called my 19-year-old son. Long recovered from blood cancer, my teenager was on his way home from his freshman year at college in Colorado. Cancer stole much of his childhood. Now the coronavirus has cut short the first year of his college adventure.
“We’ve done this before,” I said. “You know what to do.”
“Yep, Mom,” he answered. “Now everybody is like us.”
But George was not spending a lot of time thinking about what has been taken from him.
From inside his Subaru on the highway home, George was already making plans. He is proceeding with dreams to scale mountain peaks -- at least 14,000 feet tall. From his new quarantine inside his dad’s house in Louisville, he is researching adventures in the Rockies or Sierras.
While I remember how to hunker down, my son remembers how to live.
Jere Downs was an Inquirer staff writer from 1993 to 2005. Upon her son’s high school graduation this year, she came home to Philadelphia from Kentucky, where she covered food, health, and agriculture for the Louisville Courier-Journal and USA TODAY.