What 12 Days in Isolation Taught Me

For 12 days, I never left the room. I washed out my mouth with a cold, red liquid that tasted like formaldehyde. I scrubbed my body with antiseptic solution. I heated up already-hot food in a microwave in my room, and then heated it again out of fear. My only interactions were with medical professionals layered in blue protective covering, everyone masked and gloved. The white door of the room: always closed. My tongue turned a persistent, greenish color due to the chemo toxins. Exercise consisted of the 10-foot walk from my bed to the bathroom, which exhausted me.

Alone in my room, I ran my hand over my hairless scalp, and carefully fingered the tubes protruding from my neck. I longed for my children, for the way my 8-year-old, Joey, would pop out from around a corner and shoot his bubble gun at his little brother’s head, or how 5-year-old Ethan never stopped bouncing, even when I hugged him. I was incredibly grateful to get the treatment, but an undercurrent of rage ran through me. Autoimmune disease had already taken so much, and chemo and isolation were stealing what was left. My remaining energy, my hair, my money, my ability to teach English, the touch of my children, as well as any sense of safety I’d had. If any germ, any microscopic infectious agent, snuck into my body, I could go into sepsis, and that would be the end. I scrubbed the crevices of my toes, the hard-to-reach places of my back. Even my suitcase and toothbrush had been confiscated as possible vectors of disease.

“Be careful,” the medical staff said every time they left the room.

Don’t fall. Don’t touch. Don’t breathe.

I passed minutes by picking at the paint on the wall, before the fear shot through me that this, like everything else, was risky. I stroked the drawing of a blue airplane that Ethan had made for me and used a (wiped-down) pen to draw the boys’ rounded cheeks, sketching in Ethan’s eyelashes, so long that they touched his kid-size sunglasses when he blinked.

The nights in isolation were a silence so complete, a rush of nothingness I’d never experienced before. I whistled to myself and hummed. I needed to make noise to confirm that I was still part of this world.

On day six of isolation, my leukocyte count was 0.03 (the normal number is between 4,000 and 11,000 per microliter of blood), and I had 24 platelets (instead of the 150,000 to 450,000 that are typical). My eyelashes had fallen out, and my brows were patchy. I lay on my hospital bed as tears squeezed out of my eyes and traveled down my utterly smooth scalp. It was 2 a.m. when my doctor’s masked face appeared above mine: Denis Fedorenko was the hematologist guiding my treatment. He flipped through my chart, checking readouts.

“Do you ever get tired?” I asked. The lights of the parking lot below my window illuminated the snow-capped fir trees of a garden. A distant figure walked down the street, scarf wrapped tightly around his head, shoulders hunched against the cold.