Quarantine Diaries – Part 1: Into The Unknown

We are currently living through a period which will undoubtedly enter the history books. There are moments in life that everyone has the “where were you when” memories attached to, and the happenings of the last month or so have definitely been categorised as that. Our country (along with many others) is under a lockdown – perhaps not by name, but definitely in principle. We are in war-time mode – deaths reported daily as statistics we wait for, new case reports, sheltering in safe zones. I’ve found it hard to write recently but I think for posterity it would be wise to get my thoughts on it all down – thoughts I can show Eliott when he is older, a record of what we have lived through, this quarantine period. I’ve gotten some inspiration from Sinead at Bumbles of Rice, who did a diary format of her last month and a bit, and followed it up after, so I will be borrowing that style to get this all down. 

The Quarantine Diaries – Part 1. 

21 February 

I graduate from University College Cork with my Masters in Public Health. My grandmother and mother are sitting in the audience, my dad, my partner and Eliott are up on the balcony watching as I get my scroll handed to me by the President of the University. Emails had been sent in previous days advising any students who were graduating but were travelling from China would need to have arrangements made, as certain levels of quarantine were in place. There was talk of those missing from the ceremony, which was live streamed on the UCC website, in the hopes that those missing out would at least be able to watch their classmates walk across the stage and sign the register. There are hugs, and bunching together for photos and lots of handshaking – we were yet to realise how alien these things could become in just a few weeks. 

23 February

We start to talk about booking flights to Seattle for the Easter holidays. We want to bring Eliott to see the sights, and Easter seems like as good a time as any. A move is on the cards within the next year and we want to prepare him before springing it on him. But we haven’t booked anything yet, have to wait for payday at the end of the month. 

27 February

I share a few slides from the WHO on my Instagram stories about the importance of hand washing to prevent the spread of flu and coronavirus. It hasn’t hit Ireland yet, but  it seems to only be a matter of time, with a “worldwide outbreak significantly likely” headline the previous day on our national broadcaster. I work in the School of Public Health, we’ve been getting fact based emails for weeks about the risks and how the college is acting to protect its staff and students. There’s a lot of scaremongering going around and a lot of misinformation – spread both maliciously and by those who aren’t trying to be malicious but haven’t quite checked their sources. We start using the hand sanitiser in work more, and are increasingly careful about how many surfaces we touch. In talking with a colleague, we map out a route from our office to the nearest bathroom that it’s possible to do without touching a door handle. It feels like we’ve crossed the rubicon – clearly we haven’t a clue. 

29 February

It’s been a really long week where Dillen has been up to his eyes in work, so we head out for a drive to escape the house and his work laptop. He suggests driving to Kerry, which I’m not thrilled about (as he’s suggesting it at 3pm on a Saturday) but in the spirit of keeping him as far away from the work laptop as I can, I do it. We get to Killarney and head towards Torc Waterfall, where a rather grumpy five year old concedes to get out of the car. It starts to rain within minutes of us getting there, so we head back to the car. Dillen suggests we stay the night, and as I’m wrecked from the drive, I agree. He’s booked a room in the Aghadoe Heights, and we settle in, sticking on The Big Big Movie on the tv as we relax into the room before dinner. He announces he has a surprise for me, which is in lieu of a Valentines gift as we’d been up the walls that week so said we’d do it another time. It’s a book, which he calls Eliott over because he wants me to read it to him. Inside the book are photos of us from the last seven years, along with lovely quotes, and memories. By the time I get to the last page, the child had completely lost interest, but I looked up and he was down on one knee with an engagement ring. And of course, I said yes. The three of us headed for dinner and celebratory cocktails (for the adults only, obviously) afterwards, which was really lovely. 

1 March

It was a tiny bit sunnier returning to the waterfall the following day for some ring photos – just couldn’t resist. I spent the morning ringing my parents and excitedly telling friends about the proposal from the night before. We drove back in the sunshine, loving the fact that we could have these long weekend drives. We hear on the news that the first case of Coronavirus in Ireland was announced the previous evening – it’s now a reality here. 

One of my best friends who runs a small soap company tells me that since she announced they’d be doing sensitive skin friendly hand sanitiser, their sales have gone through the roof. People are crazy for the stuff. It all feels a bit crazy, but I’m thrilled for her success. 

4 March

I get a call from the school when Eliott is in after school care – he has a temperature and fell asleep on a cushion, so he needs to be collected. I leave work early and collect him . By the time we get home he’s very hot to the touch but the Calpol seems to have kicked in because his temperature is only on the high side of normal. Sofa cuddles and taking it easy are all that is on the menu for the evening. 

5 March 

I work from home today, telling work that I’m being cautious and that he’s not really fit for school as he’s still very hot and not feeling well. He watches far too much tv (and inevitably becomes the world’s healthiest child as of about 10.30am) as I work on emails. I go to Boots and buy a new thermometer as the one we have seems to be giving vastly different readings each time we use it on any of us, and with the news saying there are now 13 cases within the Republic of Ireland, I decide I’d rather be safe than sorry. This thermometer is accurate, child still doesn’t have a fever but he’s still rather warm. However, no other symptoms and he’s acting perfectly fine, so he’s back to school tomorrow. News of a community transmission case within Cork – the first of its kind in Ireland – breaks today. Eliott’s knowledge of Coronavirus has been rather dramatic – some child in Junior Infants informed all of them that if you get it, you die – and then proceeded to tell them HE had it, and coughed on the ball they were playing with. Not ideal at all. We explained the importance of hand washing, and using your cough pocket, and reassured him that really it wasn’t something that made kids very sick at all. 

10 March 

Daffodil Day is cancelled by the Irish Cancer Society. They launch a media campaign for their text donation number which I share on social media and donate to. I’m gutted for those who were ramped up to fundraise this year, as it’s their big all out day which gains them much needed funds for their research and supports. Having had Grandad die from cancer earlier this year, it felt especially important to donate to them. (You still can, using this link).

Because of all of this, I start to worry about the big project I’m working on for work – a survey of college students around Ireland which is set to go live in exactly two weeks time. I comment to my line manager that I’m hoping it won’t be affected too much by what’s going on with this quarantine – we quip that perhaps extra online time for students may up our response rate. 

Also today, I spent the day on a 24 hour blood pressure monitor, as the last two times I’ve been in with my GP my blood pressure has been quite high. I do not recommend this for a fun day experience in the slightest – especially not trying to drive around a roundabout while the machine is pumping up around your arm. 

11 March 

I return the blood pressure monitor to my GP office and note that they’re limiting the amount of people allowed in the surgery at one time to three. There’s a sign on the door saying “STOP”, asking if you have any signs of symptoms of Coronavirus to leave and contact the GP over the phone as by entering it would put the doctors, nurses, receptionists and other patients at risk. 

With 43 cases now in the country, the news announced the first fatality and the first discharge of a recovered patient. There is a lot of chatter online about the rumours of school closures and a much more stringent quarantine, but nothing mentioned officially yet. Further worry about the viability of our work project is had. I am also worried about relatives who are more vulnerable, and who are less likely to stick to restrictions – not out of malice, but out of “but sure it won’t happen to me”. 

12 March

At 11am, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar makes an announcement from Washington DC that Ireland was not in the containment phase any longer, but moving to the Delay phase of this infection. This meant that all schools, universities and childcare facilities were to close as of this evening, until the 29th of March. We have a meeting in work about contingency plans, which have been asked of all teaching staff and some research staff over the last week just in case this came to pass. During this meeting I have two missed calls from my brother and a message from my cousin – my dad has been in an accident in his van, he is on the way to hospital in Wexford, and the ambulance staff have stated he is very unwell. I tell my manager that I have to leave straight away, and drive straight towards Wexford. The mobile phone lines all seem to be down – none of us can reach the hospital to gain any further information. I listen to Joe Duffy on the radio on the way down – people are talking in panicked tones about what is happening. Donald Trump announced a ban on any travel into the United States from Europe, aside from the United Kingdom, last night, and people are distressed about not being able to get back home and paying extortionate money for flights back. Their panic feeds into my own. I still haven’t been able to reach the hospital by the time I get there, and when I do arrive into the A&E where I have been told he is, there is quite a wait ahead of me. I’m told I won’t be allowed to see him, as there is a strict no visitor policy. I completely understand why this is, and accept it, but need information, so make myself comfortable in the very uncomfortable chairs. I’m alarmed to note that the hand sanitiser dispensers in the A&E waiting room are empty. There has been mention in previous days of people STEALING it from hospitals – the world has truly gone crazy. An hour goes by and still no information, but there is a shift change. I ask the new receptionist if she has any information for me at all, and she goes and fetches a doctor for me who tells me that I cannot see my dad, but that they are treating him as a potential Coronavirus patient, as he has quite bad pneumonia, a clot on his lung, pancreatitis and liver cirrhosis. He makes it very clear that he is a very sick man, and apologises that I cannot see him, but obviously he is being kept in isolation while they figure out if it is Coronavirus or not. I walk outside and call my brothers on WhatsApp and Facebook messenger, they too are making their way here from Limerick and Dublin, and update them on the situation. One of them is still on the way, the other has stopped off in Waterford where he will stay. I meet him, we go for dinner in McDonalds, and I teasingly give out to him for coughing when he chokes on a chip and tell him to behave himself. We are freaked out and on edge but there is no point in sticking around – the hospital will call us if anything changes. We drop in pyjamas to reception just in case they’re needed, and I drive back to Cork, exhausted. 

13 March

First proper day of “Quarantine”, ie I’m working from home and the schools are closed. I’ve explained what is happening with my dad to my manager, and she says to do what I need to do, and not worry about work. Work is proving to be a good distraction, and I spend the day emailing and speaking on the phone to contacts from other colleges who were involved with our survey about whether or not they would be willing to go ahead with it while teaching was being done online. The overwhelming sense is that it would be best to postpone. 

My brother rings at about 11am and tells me the hospital has updated him as next of kin. Dad’s on a ventilator and has been sedated as he tried to pull wires out of himself so for his own health, he’s unconscious. 

Eliott asked me for his lunch ten minutes after finishing his massive bowl of porridge for breakfast. This is going to be a long few weeks. We sit in front of The Magic School Bus as a form of homeschooling for the afternoon as I am realising just how not cut out for teaching I really am. 

We go for a walk that evening and I call the hospital to find out that the swab for Covid-19 has come back negative, so dad is being moved to Intensive Care. They’re saying he needs dialysis, as his kidneys aren’t working properly, and again, they tell me he’s a very sick man. We’re allowed to visit one at a time, but getting information from his team isn’t going to be easy over the weekend as it’s unsure whether the consultant he’s under is working or not. I am getting a horrible sense that this isn’t going to end well – with the restrictions that are there at the moment, they wouldn’t be allowing us to visit unless things were that bad.

14 March

I drive towards Waterford to meet my brothers, we’ve been told we can visit Dad one at a time in ICU. We drive to Wexford together, trying to make light of things in the car while trying to quieten the feeling of dread in the pit of our stomachs. 

The hand sanitiser dispensers in Wexford hospital have a motion activated speaker that shouts at you to stop and use it. It scares me nearly every time even though I know its coming – we’re at that level of sleep deprivation. We get in to see Dad, covered in wires and connected up as if he’s wired for sound to a million machines, for a few minutes each. The ICU has been moved out of its normal location to a smaller one to make room for a coronavirus unit, which thankfully has no cases yet, so we are able to speak to doctors in the family room off the normal ICU.

They make it clear that they are doing everything they can, but that things are not looking good. He will remain on dialysis until Monday unless something changes, but after that if there is no improvement, decisions will have to be made. We’re told to stay close – within an hour of the hospital, just in case. This means I’m definitely not heading back to Cork for the next few days, so I’ll be staying with my aunt in Waterford as Mam lives even further away and the two boys will also be there. It’s a weird state of surreal that we’re in for the evening, watching old episodes of The Amazing Race and trying to stay as normal as possible, with some false hope that this may be something he can come back from. 

15 March

I’m woken up at 5.15am, my brothers are on the way, we’ve gotten the call to say come now. To say that we were glad we didn’t come across any checkpoints on the road (the lovely new bypass) is an understatement. Things have worsened overnight. We call Mam and my dad’s sisters, and tell them that the time is now if they want to come to say their goodbyes. The night staff couldn’t be more lovely, offering us tea and checking if we need anything. The day staff who take over from them at 8am haven’t quite received the same memo on bedside manner. (I understand the pressure that ICU staff are under, but the quote that we were being given information as a courtesy and not a right AS OUR DAD LAY THERE DYING was really not what we needed to hear). 

The next few hours are both a blur and really clear in a strange mesh. Dad passes away at midday, surrounded by all of us. We have completely crossed the rubicon now. I drive back to Cork after a few hours with the rest of my family – I need to be home to my boys, my own bed, my own little space in the world. We’ve been told that as it was a sudden death, a post mortem will be required and with the bank holiday, and everything else going on, it could be a few days before we will be able to do any form of a funeral. I’m numb, in a state of shock, but don’t let myself feel anything at all until I reach my driveway, where I know I’m safely home and don’t have to focus on driving after emotions hit. 

Elsewhere in the country, 40 new cases are announced, but Limerick hospital announces that it is after discharging four patients. After a video had circulated of people drinking jammed into a bar in Temple Bar, the government decides that a ban on all pubs and bars is needed. They ask people not to make their way around this with house parties. 

RIP Dad. This photo of us was taken three weeks earlier at graduation.

16 March

It turns out we didn’t have as much of a wait as we thought, my brother receives a call to say a formal identification needs to be made before the post mortem commences but that it is to be done this morning. Apparently if you die after being involved in a road accident, even if you are still alive for days after, with family next to you, the identification is standard. I find it very odd, but it’s not me being asked to do it. With this news, and knowing that the arrangements need to be made much sooner that we’d thought, I drive to Wexford again. I am so sick of my car already this week, and I’ve got a pain in my neck and shoulders from stress (thank you, fibromyalgia flare up, for your perfect timing). 

We meet the undertaker, who we’ve known for many years, and make the arrangements. We’re advised that while funerals can go ahead, they’d be scaled back and likely done as a Facebook Live mass. The decision is made by the three of us that a family wake and then a small service at the crematorium will be best for the situation we are in, where we cannot celebrate his life like we would in normal world circumstances. That said, it doesn’t feel like anything is ever going to be normal again. 

I drive back to Cork that evening, knowing I’m going to be staying in Waterford the following evening with family and not wanting to be away from home any longer than necessary. This isn’t something I want Eliott around, and with the current restrictions on people moving around, we decide that Eliott and Dillen will stay at home and I’ll go back and forth. It isn’t an easy decision but it is for the best. 

54 more cases are announced. Claire Byrne broadcasts her RTE show from her garden shed – which is far cleaner than any garden shed I’ve seen outside of the DIY shops, accompanied with a lamp. She hasn’t been tested yet but she says she is showing symptoms of Covid-19 so is in isolation. But, as they say, the show must go on – even if you are putting the gardening tools out. 

Watching Claire Byrne broadcast from her shed on the RTE player.

17 March

It’s St Patrick’s Day, but not like any other. There is talk of people uploading videos of kids performing for virtual parades, and on my way towards Waterford, I come across kids basically acting out what they would have been doing on the back of a float, all dressed up on a trailer behind a tractor on the side of the road. 

We hold a private wake for Dad, mostly direct family, one or two others pop in to pay their respects. The seats are spread out as much as they can be to encourage social distancing, there’s hand sanitiser everywhere, no condolence books, no hugs. There’s an online condolence book on RIP.ie which people have been using to give us their sympathies, as the message is made clear that while on a normal basis we would be involving lots of people, due to COVID-19, the arrangements were private. 

I head back to my aunt’s house in Waterford after the wake. Leo Varadkar addresses the nation at 9pm, where he advises that the restrictions we have in place will save lives, but he knows they will not be easy. A campaign for healthcare professionals to “be on call for Ireland” is commenced by the HSE, asking doctors and nurses who are not currently working in the Irish healthcare system to come home, or come back to the workplace in the effort to beat Covid-19. 69 new cases have been announced this evening, but thankfully, no more deaths. I head to bed not long after, knowing tomorrow is going to be a long day, and that I should at least try to get some sleep.

18 March 

The day of dad’s cremation. We drive up to Dublin from New Ross after a while in the funeral home that morning. We play the two songs he has always spoken about wanting at his funeral – My Way, by Frank Sinatra, and Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It’s very sad, but I know he would have approved. It’s just a small group of us at the crematorium, my brothers, my Mam, her brother, and my dad’s sister and her husband. It all feels very surreal, but we know that we’ve done all we can to follow his wishes. 

Afterwards, my brothers and I head to Mam’s house for some dinner and then drive back towards Waterford. I’m tempted to stay another night as I’m wrecked but decide to neck some coffee back and drive home. I collapse into bed when I get in the door, after hearing on the news that Coronavirus is now in 23 of the 26 counties, with another 74 cases announced and detailed information about hospitals released. We’d also heard in the car earlier that Dr Ciara Kelly, the Newstalk presenter, has been diagnosed with Covid-19, without having had a fever. She had been broadcasting from her hot press during the week and trucking on, but was clear she had a mild dose and it would not be this kind to others. 

The decision is also made today to suspend the research project I’ve been working on as it was higher education student based and it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to collect information on the topic we were looking at while services weren’t available and the world was in a state of flummox. Quite where this leaves me with my employment is a question for another day, but even though I sensed it was coming when the colleges all closed, it still feels like yet another blow to the stomach.

19 March

I discover that grief exhaustion is a whole other level of being tired. To make myself get out of the house, and allow Dillen to get some work done after I’ve been away all week,  I drive to Currabinny Woods with Eliott. We spend most of the time on a muddy path before discovering a far less muddy area on the lower trail. People are starting to respect the social distancing when we’re out, resulting in a couple of dance-move type movements when people are trying to avoid standing near each other. I stress to Eliott the importance of standing away from people – I’m not trying to scare him but my anxiety is already high and it’s finding a new target in Project Avoid Getting Covid-19. He’s not a massive fan of the walk, but the sea air does me some good. 

Into the Woods!

A third death is announced as a result of Covid-19, as well as 191 cases. 

I also experience my first Creep Hive – a live Zoom broadcast with the 200 other Patreon followers of the podcast The Creep Dive – which absolutely makes my Thursday. It’s a feeling of community when I feel very isolated from other people, and a distraction from everything else going on. 

22nd March

I decide I need more time in my car – or rather, that I NEED to escape my house. We initially head towards Ballincollig Regional Park, but when we arrive it looks packed, so the idea of being far away from people sounds like more of a hassle than anything. So I keep driving, and we wind up in Killarney, only getting out of the car at Lady’s View which is basically deserted. It’s lovely, and the break from reality that I needed. And little did we know, it was the last time we’d manage that for a while. 

It’s Mothers Day, but a very weird Mothers Day. I call my Mam but don’t get to see her. But I spend the day with my two men, and it soothes my anxious soul for a little while. 

All of that was within a month – from graduation, to quarantine, to the last hurrah drive before lockdown… I think stopping there for Part 1 is probably smart as it’s been an epic saga! 

To Be Continued…