Essay: A father's wait and worry for baby's arrival during pandemic

Man and woman sitting on a couch with little boy and baby
MPR News reporter John Enger and his wife, Emily, who is holding the couple's 2-year-old son, Frankie. John is cradling their newborn daughter, Lillian Mae, born on March 22, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic
John Enger | MPR News

My wife Emily was nine months pregnant when Minnesota got its first case of COVID-19. As timing goes, that’s not ideal.

The one positive, as I saw it, was that we live in Bemidji. It’s way the heck-and-gone up here. The virus had hundreds of miles to travel. I figured, if we were lucky, we could get in and out of the hospital before the hospital itself became a risky place to be.

And I really thought we had it nailed.

A couple weeks ago, Emily started feeling regular contractions. At the time, there were still just a handful of coronavirus cases in the Twin Cities metro area. On the 10 p.m. drive to the hospital, which is usually quite stressful, Emily and I laughed with relief.

Then a nurse told us it was false labor, and sent us home. And that’s where we stayed — for nearly two weeks.

Under normal circumstances, two weeks is not such a long time. But, when you’re waiting for a baby to arrive, while watching the steady march of a global pandemic, it’s a very long time.

As of Tuesday, 12 people have died from COVID-19 in Minnesota, while the number of cases in the state since the pandemic began has jumped to 629, state officials said. And we are likely weeks away from peak infection.

Sweeping and zen

We didn’t know all of that three weeks ago after that first trip to the hospital. But to be on the safe side, I began working from home — helping MPR News cover how our state was affected, about what was happening for those preparing inside emergency rooms and intensive-care units in our neck of the woods.

While interviewing industry leaders from my basement office — which is actually just the guest bedroom and a wool blanket I throw over my head to kill the echo while I record — I could hear Emily sweeping the floor above.

It’s a rhythmic sound — the way my wife does it. It’s slow, as she taps the bristles between each stroke to shake the dust off. A calm, collected sound, while on my laptop I watched the world descend into chaos.

My wife has a near superhuman ability to accept things she cannot change, and concentrate on what she can. She can’t do much about COVID-19. And, despite dozens of folk remedies involving hot sauce and jumping jacks, she also couldn’t make labor arrive any faster.

But she could sweep.

My wife is basically a zen master. For most of her pregnancy, I was too. Zen has been hard to maintain.

Then the freakout crept in

A few days after our first hospital run, leaders at Sanford Medical Center called a press conference to discuss its plans for handling the virus. After a mandatory dousing in hand sanitizer, hospital leaders led a group of media to a secluded room.

The doctors were all very calm. They talked about flattening the curve and hand-washing. Lots of hand-washing.

In passing, one doctor mentioned that he expected roughly 20 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus to require hospitalization.

Nobody else seemed to notice, but the number stuck in my mind. Bemidji is a small city, just 13,000 people. But if you draw a 10-mile radius around the city center, you get a population of about 100,000. All those people rely on Sanford.

Before stepping into that press conference, I’d heard German Chancellor Angela Merkel predict a nearly 70-percent infection rate among her people. I ran the numbers in my head. If 80 percent of my area gets sick, and 20 percent of them are hospitalized, Sanford will have to help about 16,000 patients.

The thought made my arm hairs stand up.

Since that time, Minnesota’s experts have estimated our infection rate could be between 40 to 80 percent.

When the press conference was over, I approached Bemidji Sanford CEO Susan Jarvis.

“How many beds do you have?” I asked. She said they have 118 beds, but promised they’ll keep some open for noncoronavirus-related medical issues.

Everything is going to be fine, she said. We’re prepared for this, she said.

I smiled, returned home, and spent the next few hours in a worry spiral.

I read about overwhelmed hospitals in Italy, and wondered if there’d be room at Sanford when it was finally time to deliver. I wondered if my wife would be more vulnerable to the disease — if a newborn’s immune system could handle it.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, had appeared recently on the Joe Rogan podcast.

He said pregnant women have elevated immune systems, which puts them at risk of something he called a “cytokine storm” if infected with COVID-19. In layman’s terms, as I understood it, their bodies could overreact to the disease, and start attacking their own cells. I’ve interviewed Osterholm before. He’s brilliant, but almost never reassuring.

Worry and wait

In my defense, it takes a lot to make me nervous. I've covered school shootings and train derailments and environmental disasters and small plane crashes. None of these things kept me awake at night.

This pandemic is different. It kept sleep from finding me — even before the baby came.

This pandemic is more widespread, certainly, than the other disasters I’ve written about. But it’s my own family’s situation that was eating me.

In good times, newborns are vulnerable. In unhealthy times, they’re so very vulnerable. They make you, too, vulnerable by association.

Just days before she would give birth, I asked Emily, if she was freaking out — even just a little?

Nope, said the zen master.

It made perfect sense, my wife told me, that our little girl would come in the middle of a pandemic. Of course she would keep us waiting.

“She’s an Enger,” Emily said. “Engers are all about the story. Our daughter is just ratcheting up the narrative tension.”

Emily, of course, turned out to be right. A few nights later she went into labor, for real this time. We dropped our 2 1/2-year-old son off with friends, got to a hospital that still had plenty of beds and within three hours we held our beautiful, healthy daughter, Lilly Mae.

Emily was a champion. Our nurse cried for joy. Real tears.

It was a lovely moment. A historic moment, really.

Everyone is healthy. All is well. A happy ending in a swirl of unknown.

Except, I couldn’t relax. Things are too weird. My parents canceled their visit because of reported coronavirus cases in the city where they live. My mother-in-law also won’t be coming, for the same reason.

A few days after Lilly calmly arrived into this chaotic world, Bemidji had its first confirmed infection. It now has four cases.

At our follow-up appointments, nurses meet us at a side door to avoid the waiting room. Everyone’s still smiling, but deep down you can sense their stress and apprehension. It’s been hard to take a breath and enjoy our perfect baby girl.

It’s hard to imagine how her life will be.

A handwritten letter and laughter

You get a lot of mail when you have a kid, especially when no one can visit in person. When Emily and our son went down for a nap yesterday, I went through a hefty stack of cards.

I laid the squirmy baby down beside me on the couch and read them aloud. One letter had nothing to do with Lilly. It was from a religious group that usually prefers door-knocking. It was handwritten.

The letter argued the coronavirus proved “we’re living in what the Bible refers to as the end of days.” Conversion was more important than ever, the letter said, because we’re nearly out of time.

I looked down at my daughter. She looked back. Her eyes, still that dark gray that could turn into absolutely any color as she grows, glinted.

“The end of days,” I said, and then I laughed.

I laughed like I hadn’t laughed in weeks.

Here’s the thing: Terrible stuff is always happening, and people are always proclaiming it the end of our days. I’ve lived through at least five of those warnings and I’m 30 years old.

I let worry get to me for a while there but I’m done with that now.

This virus is not the end of my daughter's story. It’s the beginning. A weird, stressful beginning, but a beginning nonetheless.

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