On the day an angry mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, Bertha Bailey was showing off pictures of a bear that had climbed the steps of her Charlton home this summer and taken a seat. “I wanted to invite him in, but my daughter wouldn’t let me,” the 81-year-old Army veteran said with mock disappointment.
She sat on the edge of her bed in the COVID-19 unit of the West Roxbury VA Medical Center, fingers dashing across her smartphone. The phone buzzed away, not with alerts from news stations, but texts from her five children wondering how she was feeling.
“Oh for cripes sake, let me have a moment,” she scolded the screen.
Down the hall in the same unit, the television in Al Chapski’s room played CNN on low volume. As the anchors grew pale with outrage describing the riot in Washington, the 92-year-old reminisced about his childhood in Boston’s West End, full of boxing matches and Celtics games, and his yearly trips down to West Palm Beach, where he and his wife had planned to be this winter before being sickened by the virus. His vitals beeped steady. And all he really wanted was a Coke.
As at other hospitals, time had taken on a different dimension in 2-North, the designated COVID-19 unit at the West Roxbury VA for cases that require observation but don’t currently merit intensive care intervention. While in Washington members of Congress readied gas masks, in West Roxbury a veteran with dementia wandered the hallways of the floor. Most of the small white televisions were tuned to an old action movie on TNT. Even on such a historic day, the unit hummed onward. 2-North was just a chapter in the patients’ otherwise vibrant lives.
But COVID-19 is nothing if not relentless. And as so often happens with this illness, the quiet rhythms on that Wednesday betrayed the dangers still to come.
Within a week, Bertha Bailey would be bedridden and breathless in an intensive care unit. Al Chapski, whose kind chestnut eyes once gleamed with nostalgia, wouldn’t make it. He took his last, labored breath the night of Jan. 13.
This story began like so many other “day in the life” tales. A Boston Globe reporter and photographer were given permission to embed in the VA unit for 24 hours. It just so happened their first shift inside fell on the day of the insurrection, the biggest news story of the new year.
2-North felt like something of a haven from that storm, the story there relatively encouraging. Just 11 of the unit’s 19 rooms were full on Jan. 6. Back in the spring, when the virus was ripping through long-term care facilities at a merciless rate, each patient who arrived seemed to be sicker than the next. 2-North swelled with veterans from the nearby Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. But now, most patients are discharged within a few days.
Al Chapski had been in the unit since Dec. 22. Before COVID-19, the 92-year-old was healthy and active. He devoured two doughnuts a day, before breakfast. He loved dancing to polka music with his second wife, Clare, whom he had met at singles dance as a widowed father in 1979. The couple planned to head down to Florida after Christmas to ride out the long New England winter amid the palm trees. But now he was in a green hospital gown in 2-North, and Clare quarantined at home in Dracut.
Since he’d arrived, the virus had weakened him. He struggled to lift his frail legs.
Still, he spoke with pride about his childhood in the West End. He’d grown up as one of five children in a Polish family in the immigrant neighborhood and spent every day of the week at the nearby Boys and Girls Club, playing Ping-Pong and throwing punches in boxing matches. City kids like him knew of a secret entrance to the old Garden that let them watch the Celtics for free. He left the West End in 1950, just before urban renewal razed the area of its meandering roads and residential townhouses, and joined the Coast Guard, where he spent his days aboard the Tamaroa, a vessel later made famous for its rescue mission in “The Perfect Storm.”
When he first arrived at the hospital, he called Clare often to ask if the car was running all right or if the refrigerator was adequately stocked with food. But by early January, he’d fallen into a holding pattern. He ran out of breath easily, though he did his best to oblige the physical therapist’s requests, and the nurses widely considered him one of their favorite veterans on the floor.
Outside his room, the nurse station buzzed with the possibility that one of 2-North’s three wings might empty soon since a handful of patients were on the brink of discharge, among them Bertha Bailey. Two wings of the T-shaped unit had shut this summer, amid a relative lull in the pandemic. But the fall surge forced both to reopen.
“That was defeating. It was like, here we go again,” said Brynn Chevalier, the lead nurse on the unit.
Closing the wing this week would be another symbolic win. A physical therapist was inside Bertha’s room to determine if she needed a cane for her return home to Charlton the next day. Bertha’s mess of frizzy blonde hair bobbed as she went up and down a box on the floor. With every step came a new quip.
“I promise I haven’t had any Mai Tais today,” she pledged after losing her balance. The therapist placed a supportive hand on the rear hem of her pants. Bertha yelped sternly: “Hey now, invite me to dinner first!” Then she winked.
But the promise of that day in early January would not last. Five new COVID-19 patients arrived through the night after an outbreak in the oncology unit. Any plans to close down the third wing were promptly dismissed.
A week later, on the day the House of Representatives was impeaching Donald Trump for a second time, the Globe returned to the hospital and found Bertha Bailey’s name, improbably, still on the whiteboard, though her room was empty. She’d gone home Thursday as planned, but her pulse oximeter, a device that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood, had registered a dangerous drop over the weekend. Her daughter — who had also been hospitalized with COVID-19 a week prior — drove her mother back to West Roxbury.
Bertha isn’t the type of woman to show weakness. “She’s the glue that holds our family together in times of crisis,” said her granddaughter Gabby. But on the hourlong trip, the matriarch of the Bailey family began to crack. She dwelled on a list of events she feared she may not live to see: A granddaughter due in the spring. Gabby’s wedding, postponed to later in 2021.
She was readmitted to 2-North. But her condition deteriorated so drastically she was moved upstairs to the intensive care unit tasked with caring for the most critical of COVID-19 patients. She remained there for a week, before stepping down to 2-North again. A day later, her sister, who had been living in a long-term care facility, died from COVID-19.
On the other side of 2-North, Al Chapski’s door was closed and his eyes were shut. There was no more happy talk of childhood. Before being stricken with coronavirus, Chapski’s wife said, he “never had so much as a headache.” Now, his chest rose slowly in shallow breaths. The television that once ran CNN on loop had gone black. By nightfall, the virus had overcome the 92-year-old and he died.
The nurses gathered his belongings. A sprawling life of more than nine decades textured by second-chance romance, cruise trips, Market Basket doughnuts and a love of World War II aircraft was reduced, in that moment, to a plastic bag filled with a picture frame, a pair of hearing aids, a plant in a disposable cup, a pile of clothes, and a $100 Starbucks gift card.
Somewhere in the hospital, a doctor phoned Clare Chapski — who had not seen her husband since Dec. 22, the day she dropped him off at the emergency room “to see what was going on” — to inform her she was now a widow.
Normally when a veteran dies at the West Roxbury VA Medical Center, an American flag is draped atop the transport gurney that carries them to the morgue. The same seasoned Old Glory is used throughout the hospital, a symbol of the fraternity and sacrifice of the veteran’s service. But now, when a patient dies in 2-North, a plastic American Flag themed tablecloth — the kind seen at tailgates on the Fourth of July — is plucked from a stack and flattened across the top of the gurney.
It’s a necessary adjustment for infection control. But it’s another reminder of the dignity that the disease robs from its victims, who often spend their final days alone, confused, and in sterile hospital rooms, cared for by masked nurses whose smiles they’ll never see.
When Al Chapski’s gurney disappeared through the metal door, his nurse started to cry. Tears streamed under her face shield and collided with her mask. Brynn Chevalier, the lead nurse who’d stayed after her shift to see Chapski off, placed a gloved hand on the sleeve of her colleague’s surgical gown. Another nurse reminded her gently not to touch her eyes. Though the staff had received the first dose of the vaccine, COVID-19 threatened to infect them even as they mourned.
A new patient had arrived in the room where Bertha’s one-woman comedy show had unfolded a week prior. The veteran was FaceTiming his family. His daughter sang a slow rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” before passing the phone to her mother.
“Don’t fall asleep on me. I want to say goodnight to you. OK?” pleaded the woman on the other side of the phone. “I love you. You’re the best husband, best dad, and best grandpa anybody ever had. And we all love you so much. OK? I miss you. I’ll let you go to sleep. I miss you. Goodnight.”
The cycle had begun again in 2-North, where most people now come and go because, after a year living with the virus, so much more is understood about how to save them. But others still come there to die. Even after all this time, the virus too often wins.
Five days later, on the eve of the anniversary of the first recorded COVID-19 case in America, the nation would record its 400,000th death. All the while the world spun madly on.