The last time Mitch and Caryl saw each other in person, without a digital chaperon, was on March 13 at the T-RAD clinic in Ler Doh, Myanmar. Caryl returned to Thailand while Mitch stayed to help the clinic prepare for the approaching pandemic. They thought their separation would be maybe a month, although Mitch, being the worst case scenario guy, did say that it could be much longer. While his full-blown zombie apocalypse didn’t materialize… Myanmar and Thailand did close their borders on the first of April. Every few weeks after that, governments, with suspiciously gleeful-sounding reluctance, announced extensions of emergency pandemic measures. Mitch and Caryl were stuck in two separate countries with no end in sight.
In Ler Doh, there was plenty to keep Mitch busy. Mitch, together with Dr. Sha and Dr. Phyo Phyo from the T-RAD Clinic, developed a strategy to address COVID in a remote environment. By setting realistic limits based on likely outcomes, they designed a practical approach for areas with limited resources. Actually, this strategic document was very well received by international organizations and the Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW) used it for several large funding requests. Based on those plans, Mitch and EMA medical teams implemented preventative measures at their own RTC and T-RAD clinics. They built separate waiting rooms and started screening all patients for cough and fever outside the clinics. They trained staff in best practices. PPE stocks in the country were quickly depleted, so the T-RAD clinic staff made them by hand. This included scrubs, hats and face shields. They rejuvenated old, unused N95 masks from last year’s flu season. They expanded the oxygen supply. The T-RAD pharmacist, Ler Po, made alcohol-based hand gel and ran tests on the alcohol content based on Youtube videos for making beer. The Education department decided to pull students from clinical rotations in the T-RAD Clinic and switch them to lecture-only based study. The more senior students could serve as back-up healthcare volunteers, should COVID incapacitate regular clinic staff. Mitch gradually came to feel the clinics were as ready as they could be and staff settled into the new clinic routines. All that was left to do was to keep everyone vigilant and wait.
The local public, however, stormed through a different narrative. They were being fed a news diet of high drama, fear and xenophobia. In their context, “foreigner” wasn’t Europeans, Iranians or Chinese… it was Mitch and Caryl types… well-meaning Americans. One day, Matt, one of our long-term American volunteers, who was perfectly healthy and had not been out of the region in months, experienced the consequences of this media-cultivated paranoia. He was buying supplies in the town just down the road, when suddenly one enthusiastic mob member spotted the obvious COVID-oozing foreigner and dragged him before the city administrator and a gathering crowd. They demanded Matt be put in immediate isolation. Fortunately, our petite young lawyer/administrator took charge. Coordinating her directives with immigration officials, she told our volunteer to simply get in the truck and leave forthwith, frothing mayor notwithstanding. In this environment of fear, patients with serious medical problems also hesitated to come to the clinic. At least one little toddler died from dehydration due to simple diarrhea because his parents were too afraid to bring him to the clinic in time.
Oddly, community spread of COVID never really materialized in these areas (yet). In fact, for some still unknown reason, populations all across SE Asia seem to have been spared serious COVID disease. Regional politicians credit their own strict public health policies, even though there was a large window of opportunity for viral spread before these measures were in place. It seems, however, few officials are in a hurry to give up this new authority. Thailand hasn’t seen a case of community spread COVID since the end of May. Nevertheless, 2 and 1/2 months later, extreme travel restrictions were still firmly in place, forcing the ongoing separation of poor-lonely-ole-mitchryan and the love of his life, Caryl. So, the EMA teams in both Thailand and Myanmar decided to take matters into their own hands and began to plot Mitch’s return. Marriage sometimes takes a whole village of support.
Several Chiang Mai office staff, along with EMA lawyers in Yangon and Ler Doh, spent a couple weeks of jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get the coveted “Certificate of Entry’’… permission from the Thai embassy for Mitch to travel to Thailand. Caryl purchased the required $100,000 health insurance for COVID-19. Mitch paid for the full 15 days at a hotel quarantine site in Bangkok and a ticket on a cargo flight to Bangkok. No one in this house of cards would give a money back guarantee should one of the many requirements fall through. Finally, only one last requirement for travel remained… the nasal violating, COVID-19 test. Because he was coming from Ler Doh, Mitch didn’t get to Yangon in time for the batch COVID-19 testing of the rest of those on the scheduled cargo flight to Bangkok. Mitch’s results wouldn’t be ready until Friday afternoon. The single flight to Thailand that was open to passengers that week departed Friday afternoon at 3pm. And no one could say when the next flight would be. The kind officer at the National Lab in Yangon said she’d try to speed her lads along so that the test results would be ready before the flight left.
She smiled, “Just no guarantees.”
By all appearances, Mitch is pretty good at compartmentalizing… be that emergency room tragedies or flight-depending COVID-19 tests. Inside though, his brain never stops generating options.
“Maybe if I slept on the steps outside the National Lab, the lab tech would have pity on me and do the test quickly?”
“Maybe a large donation to the lab?”
“Donuts and Coffee anyone?”
Friday morning arrived and he went before the National Lab officer. The smiling, oh soooo sweet, National Lab officer was true to her word and presented the test results before noon: negative. Outwardly: Mr Spock with a smile… Inwardly: Ferris Bueller doing Twist and Shout… Mitch headed to the airport.
The never-off brain has a down side. At each step of the check-in process, Mitch could also imagine some new bureaucratic quirk suddenly disqualifying him from travel.
“You don’t have your original birth certificate, signed and stamped in triplicate?…
NO SOUP FOR YOU… GET OUT.”
So it was with great relief, Mitch finally stepped onto the aircraft. The cargo plane turned out to be a regular-looking commercial airliner with about 50 or 60 other stressed passengers. No black netting. No foldable side benches. The brave stewardesses dressed in full PPE which included bright yellow shoe covers, a full-length jumpsuit complete with hood in viral lab white, N95 mask and shield, and latex exam gloves. Mitch was starting to empathize with the zombie side of famed apocalyptic scenarios.
Mitch arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok around 4:00pm July 17. Fully PPE’d health personnel checked passengers’ temperatures repeatedly. The support staff for an airport that usually handled thousands of travelers per hour focused on the motley few. Dozens of masked security personnel patrolled the wide-eyed passengers being processed. One never knew when a sudden psychotic break would cause one of the COVID-lepers to make a dash for freedom. Or more likely, a passenger loosing an ill timed sneeze or cough. Mitch could imagine CODE-V teams with security storm troopers and space suited healthcare personnel sprinting towards the solitary dumbfounded passenger, suitcase in hand and a second sneeze building in his nose. The more he thought about it, the more that tickle in his nose started to build…
I managed to ignore the cough building at the back of my throat. Several times. I signed multiple forms and meekly followed the line of 50 other people from my flight through the processing stations, immigration and then customs. It was all so proper… so controlled… and all by people dressed in the latest fashionable, high tech PPE. The message being projected was control.
“We are in control of this and of you.”
It was a little Soylent Green dramatic but I didn’t really care. I was now in the same country as my wife. Finally I was ushered into a special sealed van and whisked away to the hotel room where I would be spending the next two weeks.
Going into the quarantine, my main concern was self-discipline. There is a fine line between mitchryan the spiritual and mitchryan, the beer gutted, remote wielding couch potato yelling obscenities at the TV. It’s a potentially slippery slope, and I wasn’t sure where being stuck alone in a small hotel room would leave me. I did ask a couple of friends to hold me accountable. And a bunch of people were praying for me and God was gracious. I lost weight. Hundreds of burpees, squats and pushups later… the lack of snacks or drink… ordering the next day’s meals at moments of post prandial strength… helped me actually lose several pounds. The few movies I saw, I watched together with Caryl. She rented on Apple and I on Amazon so we could watch them at the same time. Caryl and I have both been really busy for months with various aspects of our PA training program, so assuming I survived my potential for self destruction, I thought maybe I would have some free time to read and relax. Alas… and then man created Zoom. Between EMA meetings, helping our PA students online and online time with Caryl, I stayed zoomingly busy the entire time in quarantine.
My impression of Caryl’s concern for me during quarantine was that I’d either go crazy or that I’d come to enjoy it. For her, bad, either way. After my second COVID-19 test came back negative, I was allowed to go out of my room for a couple hours a day. Masked and booted, security personnel escorted me down to the “yard” where a few other fellow quarantiners paced in the sun. Caryl kept urging me to talk to some of them. But conversation takes creative initiative and I was running low. That part of my brain was drying up. My ability for spontaneous social chatter was a stare-at-the-wall finger-to-lip burbling zero. I didn’t feel like talking or writing or texting or zooming. It was one of two major life lessons that stared me down in quarantine… my creative initiative depends a great deal on being part of a community and that starts with everything being good with my wife. She is my muse. In fact, I think both of us see God’s view of ourselves as the person who we really want to be and we sincerely value our marriage as an important part of the way to get there.
Caryl came down to Bangkok a few days before I was to be released. I could watch her walk around by the pool from my cloistered balcony. I sent her a Spotify link to Dire Straits, “Romeo and Juliet”. Except this time it was, a lovestruck Juliet singing the streets of serenade, laying everybody low with a love song that she made.
After my third nasal violation came back negative, I was allowed to go down to the pool or the exercise room for an hour early in the morning, before normal hotel patrons would use them. One of those days, Caryl said she saw me through the glass doors, running on the treadmill. On the day before release, Caryl and I “might” have secretly met in the garden around the pool. We “might” have casually migrated to the back. It’s conceivable that my hand may have touched hers… Possibly.
Romeo: “My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”
The night before release, the hotel gave me a complimentary meal at their Numero Uno Cafe. I failed to find the logic of that… still in quarantine but free to go to a public restaurant? Maybe it was a test in disguise to see if I was ready for re-entry back into normal society?
“Sorry sir, you should have refused to take the dinner in public… you failed… you aren’t ready to be released yet… BACK TO QUARANTINE FOR 14 MORE DAYS”.
Caryl met me at the restaurant. We ordered a glass of wine to celebrate our first public moment together. The waitress came back and said Caryl could have a glass, but I could not. Apparently if wine touched my lips, she would have to restart my 15 days quarantine all over again. OK… good to know, I thought, America wasn’t the only place logic was failing. We enjoyed the rest of the meal but the no-wine-reminder of my zombie status kind of took the wind out of my already weakened conversational skills. On the way back to my room, I muttered to the security escort that my wife was over on the normal people’s side of the hotel. I told him that we had just enjoyed a meal together and were really looking forward to being together.
He looked at me in the dark and said, “if you want to spend the night over there, it’s ok by me.” Ha… I could have hugged him.
Juliet: “If they do see thee they will re-quarantine thee.”
Romeo: “I have night’s cloak to hide me from their eyes, but thou love me, let them find me here. My life were better ended by their hate than death prolonged, wanting of thy love.”
Still Romeo aside, I wasn’t going to risk incurring the wrath of the logic-less hotel bureaucrats. But at least someone on planet earth was thinking straight. God bless that guy. I still smile when I remember him.
And then the day finally arrived. I didn’t wait for the nurse to check me out. I just left, suitcase in hand, and backpack on my shoulder. The security guys, God bless em, helped me to the front desk. I got an official certificate of quarantine completion signed by the Deputy Permanent Secretary for Public Health… in case any other happy go lucky COVID spotter should take interest in my pale, sunless appearance. Caryl met me in the lobby and escorted me back to her room. We might have had that forbidden glass of wine right there and morning then… and some. We ate breakfast and walked around parts of the hotel that were previously off limits to me. It was beautiful. Simple old style Thai bathed us in beauty of sound, sight and smell. It was good to be alive and the ole brain slowly let down its guard. We were at peace. At last, we were as we were meant to be.
At last, a reunion of soulmates… Juliet and Romeo.
Oh so very good.
Dr. Mitch has run several medical programs in remote places. He enjoys exploring new worlds with enthusiastic experts in their fields…anything in medicine, science, history, art, music, engineering, philosophy, multimedia and IT. He has recently conceded that he’s not likely going to get to go to the moon in his lifetime. But Antarctica is still on the list.