Sen. Maggie Hassan: Coronavirus and my family -- What it means to be high risk for COVID-19

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In the few short weeks since “social distancing” entered the common lexicon, it has been remarkable to see so many Americans alter their lives in ways big and small to help slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

One of the major reasons that public health experts are instructing us to make these significant changes to our daily lives is to protect particularly high-risk individuals such as the immunocompromised, those with chronic medical conditions and the elderly.

We probably all have loved ones who fall into that high-risk category. For many, that means worrying about parents and grandparents. I have older relatives that I am thinking about, but I also worry about my son Ben, who has cerebral palsy.

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At 31, Ben is a funny, smart, incredibly patient, and the central presence and source of joy in our home. While he understands everything going on around him, he is not verbal and does not walk, and does not have enough use of fingers or eye gaze to control a computer. But he uses his eyes or a hand raise to indicate approval, and believe me, he can tell you when he is unhappy or disapproves of something as effectively as any of us.

In December 2017, however, we had a scare. Our family was gathered around Ben’s hospital bed at our local community hospital. Unlike his normal self, Ben was lethargic, in pain, and unable to communicate well.

It is not unusual for Ben to take longer than most to shake a cold, but this one had been different, and earlier in the week, he had taken a turn for the worse. A trip to the doctors’ office confirmed pneumonia, and as we gathered by his hospital bed, the doctors told us that Ben had signs of fluid filling his lungs. Treatment extended far beyond medical management and in this case required surgery.

As you may imagine, Ben is a complicated surgical patient, so his peri-operative treatment required being at a hospital that had the system in place to provide care for such complex patients.

There is no doubt that social distancing is causing massive disruption in the lives of millions and on our economy as a whole. But it is also helping to slow the spread of this virus and save lives.

Three days before Christmas, in a heavy snowstorm, I sat in the back of the ambulance with Ben and an EMT, making what would turn out to be a three-hour, harrowing ride to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

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Just a few hours later, a remarkable team of surgeons performed a minimally invasive procedure at Ben’s bedside, and throughout the rest of the week, he steadily improved. And I am grateful every day to the doctors, nurses, volunteers, and others who supported Ben and our family during his stay at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. I am also mindful of how many people and how much specialized, expensive equipment it took to save Ben.

As COVID-19 has upended all of our lives in recent weeks, those days in December have weighed heavily on my mind.

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Ahead of the Senate’s vote earlier this month on the second bipartisan COVID-19 package, most Senators traveled home for the weekend, but I decided not to follow my usual routine of going back to New Hampshire. While I have not experienced any COVID-19 symptoms, I decided to stay in Washington to be extra cautious – not wanting to potentially bring the virus into my house and near Ben without knowing.

There is no doubt that social distancing is causing massive disruption in the lives of millions and on our economy as a whole. But it is also helping to slow the spread of this virus and save lives. First, by not spreading the infection to as many people, and second, by making it less likely that our health care system is overwhelmed. Treating severe respiratory infections takes skilled personnel, open beds, and specialized, expensive equipment. Imagine arriving at a hospital that in theory could heal your loved one, only to be told that there are no available resources to do so.

In the weeks ahead, Americans will need to be patient. Given the pent-up testing demand, we know that despite the drastic public health measures being implemented across the country, the numbers will still continue to go up. That doesn’t mean social distancing isn’t working, in fact, it is all the more reason that we need to keep at it.

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We’re facing a challenge unlike anything that most of us have experienced before, but throughout our history, Americans from all walks of life have come together to help one another during times of need. We’ll do that here too.

This pandemic requires everyone to do their part, follow public health guidance, and practice social distancing. Doing so will save lives.