Deputy Planning Section Chief
Louisville Metro Government
Louisville, KY

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This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.

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There are some emergencies where plans are already written. Then, there are global pandemics.

I have two voicemails on my phone from Sunday, March 15. One is a message from 10:50 a.m.recruiting me to serve in the planning section of my city’s emergency response. The other is from my grandmother, around 4 p.m.: “Hi Sweetie, it’s Mommom. Hopefully, you’re out and enjoying the day. I just got back from a wonderful walk and I just filled my lungs with fresh air. So you take care, I’m doing fine. Love you.”

The next day I reported to our emergency operations center where I would spend the next few months working seven days a week, often ten to eleven hour days, making plans to keep my city safer, to stop the spread of COVID-19.

I’m not a healthcare worker, but my grandmother was. She went to Jefferson College of Nursing, where her yearbook bio reads, “Always ready to lend a hand. Natural curly hair and a smile for all, the writer of our class song has talents unlimited.” When I graduated from Emory with my Masters in Public Health, she was there with her smile and her walker, kissing me on the cheek and telling me how proud she was.

Most nights, I would come home from the response, exhausted, and sometimes overwhelmed. See, there are some emergencies where plans are already written, with a standard playbook that has been practiced and can be quickly executed – for example, floods and snowstorms. And then there are global pandemics, where inequities are exacerbated, entire cities are shut down, and completely new structures have to be built from scratch. I found myself on calls with hospitals discussing the most dignified way to handle the overwhelming number of dead bodies they were experiencing. How to keep them chilled until the funeral homes could retrieve them for a burial. And how to work with funeral homes to ensure their process could continue even though families were not able to gather to mourn.

April 17, I woke up with pain in my right lung. Within two hours, my temperature had jumped from normal to over 101 degrees F. I got tested and was ordered to isolate. The test came back negative, and the worst of my symptoms resolved in a few days, but given the high rate of false negatives, I spent the next ten days strictly confined to the inside of my home. That week, I worked from home on one of our top priorities – how to support long-term care facilities where the disease seemed to spread like wildfire, with some of the highest mortality rates given both the age and medical fragility of those infected.

Four days after I fell ill, I got a call from my mom in the middle of the day. Mommom had been found on her knees in her apartment at a senior living facility, unconscious. She tested positive for COVID-19; her lungs and blood were already inundated by the effects of the virus. The reality I had subconsciously repressed and feared was finally here – I was going to lose my grandmother to this disease. I kept working in a sort of dazed shock, discussing the logistics of plans and the challenges we faced. In between virtual meetings I would stare at the sun-dappled magnolia tree outside my window and sob for the loss I knew was coming.

That evening, I was able to Facetime with her one last time, thanks to the nurse in her hospital. “Mommom, I need you to know how much I love you,” I said over and over again. Normally cheery and gregarious, she kept trying to cut the conversation short. “I know, Sweetie, I don’t feel very good. I’ll talk to you when I feel better.” The next morning, her lungs filled with fluid, she passed away.

In public health, you often don’t see the individual impacts of your work – like bringing an iPad to your patient’s room so family members can say goodbye. Instead, you work to make it so that other families don’t experience the same sorrow you do, of losing a loved one to a disease that has now claimed over 100,000 in the United States. You try to contain the disease so that families don’t know how close they might have come to saying goodbye to someone they love – but only over Zoom, because the pandemic has disrupted mourning too. I’m working my hardest, and, like my grandmother – ready to lend a hand.

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Rebecca Hollenbach is a Louisville transplant and Pennsylvania native working in local government in order to advance health equity. She currently spends her free time with her plants and her husband.