Families Learning How to Live in Isolation and Uncertainty

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After feeling feverish for almost two weeks, and after the flu medicine his doctor prescribed proved ineffective, Española resident Israel Sanchez was given two tests at the Española Hospital: a test for pneumonia and another for COVID-19. 

The pneumonia test came back negative soon after he took it. He had to wait five days to find out the results of the COVID-19 test, and his uncertainty about those results aggravated the anxiety he had already been feeling in self-isolation.

Sanchez, like several County residents, decided to stay home rather than risk spreading the virus, or any other sickness, to others.

He spent several days alone in a room, staying away from his family because he was afraid of getting them sick.

“I’m not scared for myself,” he said. “I’m scared for them.”

He works at the Santa Clara Travel Center, a convenience store where he screens the IDs of people from all over the country, so he was worried that he might have picked up the virus from a traveler.

The days in his room were lonely. Every so often he would say hello to his wife and daughter, keeping his distance, and sometimes they would go outside together and plant flowers––roses, irises and poppies.

He observed that even the two family cats seemed to be avoiding him, coming inside only to eat their food and then leaving as soon as they could.

“Like, ‘Alright, thanks for the food, bye,’” he imagined the cats thinking.

The one time he ventured out of the house he drove his wife to the grocery store and waited in the car, wearing a mask.

“People are looking at me and I could see them mumbling stuff,” he said. “I felt like a leper.”

He tried to keep himself entertained and distracted with funny YouTube videos, but while he waited for his test results, his mind came to feel like a seesaw.

“One second it’s hopeful, the other second thoughts get into my head and like, ‘Oh my god, this can happen, that can happen, what am I going to do?’” he said. “Then it goes back up, like, ‘Oh it’s fine, we’re fine.’ It’s not really balanced at the moment. I’m just so worried about what’s gonna happen, if I think about my job, if I’m gonna keep it, even if I’m gonna go back to it.”

His employers told him they would pay for his sick leave if he tested positive for the virus but otherwise would not be able to pay him during his absence.

While he waited to know the results, the days began to blend together. He started telling the passage of time by the passage of YouTube videos. In his feverish state he would fall asleep and dream that he was waking up. And when he actually woke up, he was uncertain whether he was truly awake.

“You question when you wake up whether you’re in reality or in a dream,” he said. “That’s how I feel. Like, okay, this is real, right? This is the time we’re actually living in?”

The test results came back on Monday morning. He does not have the virus.

Mingled with Sanchez’s relief is the uncertainty about whether he will go back to work and the fear that he might catch the virus in the future.

Teachable moments

Dixon resident Charlotte Madueño, founder of Madueño Consulting Services, is concerned about the loneliness of her three young children, who are now staying home from school.

“Their friends can’t come over,” she said. “That’s been the hardest part. They’re going crazy being here at home, I think, more than we are, which kind of stirs the pot a little.”

Her husband works as a firefighter and paramedic in Los Alamos, so he is gone at least a couple days each week, and she must juggle the kids’ needs and her own full work schedule.

The County has contracted her alongside United Way of Northern New Mexico to coordinate the County’s Census efforts. The team has had to rush to come up with a last-minute plan for encouraging residents to fill out the Census, given the new constraints around social interaction.

“I don’t have my partner here, and I’m here alone with the kids, and so I’m trying to keep them on a school schedule and also do my work with my 2-year-old barging in on me every three minutes, so that’s kind of been a little tough,” she said. “You think when you stay home that it’s all gonna be nap times and relaxing and it’s definitely been the opposite for me. I’m twice as busy.”

The hardest part for her is not being able to give her kids the time she feels they deserve, when they ask her for attention or when they want to show her an accomplishment from their online learning programs.

“I’m gonna try to be the best that I can be as a teacher for them, but having my job and not as much help has definitely made me feel I’m not doing as much as I should be doing for them, educational-wise,” she said.

She has been trying to make as many moments as possible into moments of learning.

Last week, she taught her son how to assemble the desk he has since been working at, and she and her husband have been explaining what germs are, what a vulnerable population is and what the word “isolation” means.

She wants to serve as a good example to them by helping elderly people in her community obtain groceries. She is hoping to make the kids’ learning hands-on whenever she can.

“I want to make sure their reading skills are up to date on their books, and they have alone time and quiet time in their rooms where they have to read, and they’re doing puzzles and things like that,” she said. “I’m trying to keep them not solely online.”

She and her husband came up with a rigorous schedule, including exercise, learning time, creative time, chore time and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) time, for the kids to follow––a schedule that has been helpful for them, too.

“I just want to be sure that I’m trying to stay on task,” she said. “It’s very overwhelming.” 

Despite the challenges, Madueño emphasized the importance of staying home. 

“I’m worried that lots of people aren’t taking this serious enough,” she said. “I know it’s hard for people, especially for the ones that are losing their jobs. But if we don’t completely stop what we’re doing, it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”

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