Updated: Jan 26, 2022
They took Andrea to the hospital today. Three white-suited health workers from a private health transportation company wrapped her in blankets, bundled her substantial body onto a gurney, and rolled her down the hall. Her face looked puffy and slack, the bottom half lost under an oxygen mask and her eyes closed. Although she had complained of cold, sweat beaded in a thin line just below her hairline on her forehead. Even from several feet away, I heard her struggling to breathe.
The tallest of the three white-suited movers peered out at me from under his protective hood to ask if I would hold her condominium keys for her. Just until she comes home, he said. But I replied they would be better left at the front desk and declined to enunciate my fear that she would likely never come home, and I didn't know what I would do with the keys then. Our hallway felt especially hollow and empty after the gurney clanked onto the elevator.
Watching as they rolled her to her rendezvous made me wonder about solidarity and where it has gone.
Andrea had always known she was at particular risk from COVID. Significantly overweight with diabetes and at least two other respiratory illnesses, she was very aware of her need to get vaccinated and boosted, keep masked, and, by and large, avoid people. And the rest of us who lived on this floor dwelt in this reality, too, in solidarity with her. We brought her up packages from the front desk so she wouldn't have to go down to get them and let her board elevators alone, so she didn't need to stand close to others. We masked ourselves. We vaccinated. We took care because we understood we were not alone here, and it wasn't all about us. Our solidarity then extended to as far as sanitizing our hands the night we carried Andrea down nine stories of stairs to escape the building.
It was relatively early on a rainy evening when the alarm went. The building had a history of alarm malfunctions over time, so our habit had become to measure our alarm response by whether or not there was any sign of fire other than the clanging bell. It was rarely an open fire. But that night, smoke wafted along the halls, so our neighbors and we went door to door down their lengths, pounding, yelling, and letting everyone know that there was a fire this time.
People poured into the halls and started their orderly march down the fire stairs. We were almost ready to leave when we turned around, and there was Andrea, in her walker, her eyes wide with fear. This was in the very early days of COVID when it wasn't clear that you couldn't contract it through touch or how far away you needed to stay safe or just how much contact would be enough to give it to you. But here she was. The elevators did not work. Firefighters were God knew how many minutes away. Two of our sturdy neighbors and I stepped up.
After one of their girlfriends bathed our hands in sanitizer, we each took a part of Andrea or her walker and carried her down nine flights of stairs to the ground level. All along the way, our other neighbors encouraged us, made way for us, offered us water, and cared for us. We arrived safely.
Maybe it was unrealistic to suppose that solidarity would remain in place forever. Over time it became clear that not everyone who lived in the building would accept vaccination. As cases fell, many people gradually gave up masking themselves. We didn't. But we began to feel like a minority. Even when Omicron arrived, most people still didn't return to their earlier caution.
Eventually, after living weeks in an environment that became steadily less careful of COVID, Andrea tested positive for the virus. Her illness progressed rapidly; we believe she called for an ambulance four days after her positive test and now occupies a hospital bed fighting for her life.
One of her students once asked renowned Anthropologist Margaret Mead when civilization started. Mead responded that it began 15,000 years ago when one person broke their leg and others cared for them long enough to heal. Mead had found a bone dated from 15,000 years before that exhibited evidence of a healed break.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human rather than abandoning them to save their own life. Someone has recognized and practiced the power and knowledge of solidarity that we, it seems, have forgotten.