“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Chicago” by Anca L. Szilágyi

Samuel Schwindt

I was sitting inside an airtight booth with my nose clipped shut, inhaling and exhaling into a tube with all my might. My rheumatologist had ordered the plethysmography in January, to be done before I would see her again in August; she and my dermatologist were thinking I didn’t have discoid lupus (which I’d been treated for with hydroxychloroquine for 13 years—that’s one of the drugs Trump has been recklessly suggesting as a possible cure for COVID-19) but a different autoimmune condition—dermatomyositis, which could affect my lungs. I also carry a rare immunodeficiency, chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), so I don’t want to take the immune-suppressing medications used to treat lupus and dermatomyositis. My doctors agreed that if my internal organs are fine I didn’t need to take the medications. The lung function test was to establish a baseline.

This was March 11, and I’d thought about calling ahead to see if I should cancel my appointment, but instead I Googled “Should I cancel my doctor’s appointment corona virus” and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center blog was telling patients without COVID-19 symptoms to keep their appointments. Even though I’m not a cancer patient, I decided to follow their advice.

“Pant,” the pulmonary technician instructed, so I panted. “Now blow, blow, blow, blow, hard as you can!” A little balloon on the other end of the tube expanded. The technician watched a graph on her computer screen. A pregnant technician sat behind her, learning how the test should go.

How many such tests were happening that day, not related to the pandemic, just because no one was cancelling appointments yet? The waiting room at 8:15 am had been fairly empty.

Afterwards, I grabbed coffee in the hospital lobby. A woman in a parka with a fur-lined hood burst through a side door asking which way to the ER. She was coughing violently and not bothering to cover her mouth. Get out of here, I thought, and found myself wandering downtown, wondering if I should chuck my coffee—had her cough sprayed droplets on it? With time to kill before a lunch date with my husband, I found myself at the Chicago Cultural Center, peering at Belkis Ayón’s haunted prints.

“Shadow,” a one-year-old shouted at the enormous silhouettes. A security guard lauded the baby’s perception, then turned to me, told me how Ayón’s works remind her of sleep paralysis and how Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was actually about sleep paralysis. As terrifying as sleep paralysis and shadowy ghosts sound, I found solace in that security guard’s enthusiasm, solace in Ayón’s work, and in the Chicago Cultural Center’s beauty.

I had an ophthalmology appointment scheduled for the following Wednesday. Thirteen years of hydroxychloroquine permanently damaged my eyes—Thank god you kept up with your annual eye exams, my doctors said, when they caught the damage last April right before a move from Seattle to Chicago, and I immediately stopped that medication. My vision is still good, but even off the drug my eyes can continue to deteriorate; the toxicity lurks in the retinae, with no way to get flushed out. Better finish that ekphrastic novel quick and move on to opera, I’d joked with a friend.

On Tuesday, Ophthalmology cancelled all appointments except emergencies. I was given a list of symptoms that would constitute an eye emergency, and I hold them in my mind alongside all the other chronic illness symptoms I hold in my mind, and all the COVID-19 symptoms, and all the preventive measures—six feet, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay home, call your mother, get your fresh air and exercise—and the preventive measures for CGD, which self-isolation mostly renders moot—no spelunking, no tattoos, no smoking marijuana (it can carry aspergillus, a deadly-to-me fungus), no mulching, no taking out the trash—and the preventive measures for my eyes—wear dark sunglasses because UV rays activate the hydroxychloroquine squatting on my retinae. And, I wonder about everyone I encountered that last day before I started self-isolating to protect myself—the pulmonary technician and the pregnant technician she was training, the baristas working elbow to elbow, the woman coughing uncontrollably, the baby and her grandmother at the Cultural Center, the security guard. The shadows.

I’ve been holed up at home since March 11. I’m lucky my husband and I can work remotely and  he can get our groceries and we have our disinfectant wipes and soap and rubbing alcohol. Saturday was cold and beautiful and I could hear greetings exchanged outside. From afar a man shouted, “How are you?”

A woman hollered, keeping a distance, “Staying well.”

-March 21, 2020

Version 2Anca L. Szilágyi is the author of the novel Daughters of the Air, which Shelf Awareness called “a striking debut from a writer to watch.” Her writing appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and Orion, among other publications. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Lilith Magazine, Vermont Studio Center, Artist Trust, and elsewhere. Originally from Brooklyn, she has lived in Montreal, Seattle, and now Chicago.