Was it Worth it?

By Brett Kiesel (’23)

I recount my Dad reading me Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World. It was a David versus Goliath story, of sorts. Danny and his father lived on attractive land desired by the local business tycoon, Mr. Hazell. Rather than sell the land to Mr. Hazell, Danny and his father devised a plan to foil Mr. Hazell’s acquisition of it. He baits and poaches the pheasants on Mr. Hazell’s land with drugged raisins. While the plan doesn’t entirely succeed, Danny was successful in accumulating the support of others in the town and promoting the necessary change to challenge Mr. Hazell. I want to be the “Danny” for those who were forgotten for their sacrifices during such an important time in our history.

Dressed in khakis, a red and white checkered dress shirt, and my new suede dress shoes, I walk towards the desolate brick building. The sun is breathing down on an abnormally hot September morning as I knock on the open metal door frame at the back of the building.

“Hi, I’m Brett. I’m looking for Bruna?”

“That’s me, welcome and thank you so much for coming to help out. We really needed the bodies,” she says.

I was told they couldn’t get anyone to work at the testing site. They offered pay raises, paid-time-off, and more incentives for employees to leave their Walgreens stores temporarily. The Covid-19 testing site was being run out of an abandoned Rite Aid, one that was left to its original, gutted state from over a year prior. The first day mostly involves training, as I learn the “ins and outs” of the position. My job is to fill out paperwork with the patients, bring it to a table where I enter and file the paperwork, prepare a test, and give it to the pharmacist on duty to instruct the patient.

The State of Connecticut has been one of the most stringent in the country during the pandemic. Actually, Connecticut is one of the most stringent states in the country. Regulations prevent small businesses from opening and current shops and stores from re-opening in a post-pandemic world. Schools were shut down despite growing concerns from parents, teachers, and communities alike.

My Grandma means the world to me. She raised me whilst my Mom worked full-time and worked towards her 6th-year degree in school psychology. When my Grandma found out my Mom was pregnant, she quit her job and put in her application to be my babysitter, although she was the only applicant. I spent most of my time at her small house on the corner of Hamlin & Bissell Street in Manchester. Her house glowed on the corner of an otherwise drained and grey location. Hydrangeas lined the stumpy hill leading down towards the sidewalk that lined the perimeter of her house. She spent as much time nurturing her extensive gardens as she did pulling empty Fireball nips and Fritos wrappers from the hydrangeas and bushes. She would bring me on two-mile walks nearly every single day.

Starting the job was daunting. I am constantly running up and down the beaten pavement leading to the dysfunctional pharmacy drive-thru. It’s November, so I cloak myself in the new North Face down jacket I purchased a month prior. Twenty-some-odd cars snaked the parking lot and around the cones I had placed earlier that morning in an effort to direct traffic. It isn’t long before I have to begin turning patients away due to a lack of tests being provided to us by the State. First come, first serve. An hour after we reach our non-appointment threshold, I walk down the driveway in the same beige suede dress shoes I wore on my first day. White spots that look like tie-dye begin to appear from the salted roads while the crepe soles begin to brown from mucky snow.

“Can I see your confirmation email?” I ask.

“What confirmation email?” The woman driving the white Escalade angrily peers down on me.

“We require an appointment, unfortunately we can’t keep up with the demand,” I point towards the cars lined up behind her, piling out onto the road below where a Middletown Police officer directs traffic as a result of our operation.

“You’re telling me I waited in this line for nothing? My husband came this morning without an appointment and you didn’t turn him away. And where are the signs? I don’t see a single sign anywhere saying I need an appointment!” she begins to scream. Cars in front and behind roll down their windows, watching in horror. I point at a sign just outside of her passenger-side window reading “APPOINTMENTS REQUIRED, GO TO WWW.WALGREENS.COM/COVID19TESTING.”

“There’s also one back there that you passed. I’m sorry,” I brace for more yelling, but I don’t receive any.

“You’re fucking useless,” she throws her car into gear and peels directly left. I jump out of the way as she speeds off. I walk to the next car to take their information.

“Can I see your confirmation email?” I ask once again.

“Are you okay?” The man replies, as he begins to show me his appointment information.

“I wish I could say that was the first one today. She’s just the first one to almost hit me,” I reply somberly. His eyes open wide with concern. I thank him, turn around, and begin walking, staring down at my now stained suede shoes, covered in brown slush from spinning Escalade tires.

A two-time survivor of lung cancer, my Grandma is an example of overcoming adversity. Her experience is one of the many unfortunate results of Big Tobacco’s relentless and misleading campaigns during the mid-20th century. The cigarette she smoked under the blossoming dogwood tree at her previous home in the late 80s would be her last. She was diagnosed with lung cancer for the first time, and never picked up another cigarette. Treatment was successful, but she later developed lung cancer once more. After removing half of an unsalvageable lung, she developed COPD. During the height of the pandemic, while my Dad and I worked in direct contact with Covid-19, my Grandma temporarily moved in with my uncle in August. It was too dangerous to have her in the house at the time. Months passed, and while difficult to be separate from her, she was protected from most dangers that would threaten her immune system.

Not long after moving back in with us in November, she developed a severe cough. Her oxygen was low enough that the paramedics needed to pull over and stabilize her before continuing (she would later recount that she actually felt fine). My Grandma had developed pneumonia. I visited her at night twice once I was out of work. After a long week in the hospital, she came home. Days passed. She developed another cough, nearly identical to the one before. We thought nothing of it; it was relapsed symptoms that occur with pneumonia shortly after treatment. I woke up feeling hot and with a severe headache. It wasn’t an immediate indicator of being sick, but it worried me. It felt like my face was heating up separately from the rest of my body. After getting groceries for my Grandma, I got tested. Positive. My Dad was next, and soon, my Grandma. She had gotten it while in the hospital, and then transmitted it to us. After months of preparation and careful considerations to keep her healthy, she got it first. We were devastated. We expected the worst. A week later, she was back to normal. Her laundry list of “odds-defiance” only grew.

After two years of frustration and anger with the State of Connecticut over Covid-19 protocols and regulations, the government listened to its people. Following in the footsteps of other states, per usual, our governor announced a Covid-19 relief program with the intention of paying up to $1,000 to frontline and essential workers who risked everything during the pandemic. A form was released to the public later than promised. The site would crash the first couple of days, but they eventually figured it out. I applied, along with my Dad. We both fit the criteria, and we expected a full payout. Months passed without any word. Finally, my Dad was accepted. I searched my emails, only to find my rejection email buried in my spam folder. I was speechless.

I worked tirelessly for half of 2020 supporting the State’s initiative to supply Covid-19 testing to the general public. I helped Walgreens transition their Covid-19 testing operations to pharmacies by training technicians every minute detail. I then worked, and continue to work, in understaffed pharmacies all over the state. I witnessed my Grandma survive pneumonia after being incorrectly admitted into the Covid-19 wing of the hospital. Our family became sick as we watched our Thanksgiving that year disappear. I still recount all the times I winced in fear of being called “fucking useless” everytime I reluctantly turned away a patient. I like to think of myself as a “Danny.” I’m certainly not a champion, but I think that’s okay. You don’t need to win all the battles to be one. The same suede shoes I wore at the time have mostly tarnished around the toe; stains from oil or rain covering the tops and bottoms.

I’ve noticed fewer and fewer stains developing since then.