By Karen Lee Sobol
Has your sense of time shifted lately? Does avoiding people feel bizarre, and has Purell become your new best friend? Do you spot beauty in surprising places, and feel the rhythm of your breath inside your mask?
I’ve lived through this before. Then, I was solo. Now, I’m one of seven billion, living through it again, with you. Both times, with little advance notice, a deadly disease became a dire threat. Then, in 2005, I was diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma defined as rare and incurable. Now, in 2020, we all risk infection by COVID-19, a wildly contagious novel coronavirus with no known cure. My blood cancer was so rare it’s called an orphan disease. COVID-19 is so universal it’s called a pandemic.
Thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday usually energizes us. Plans often include travel, time with family and friends, and meals shared. This year, the dangers of spreading or contracting COVID-19 trigger anxiety and dread. What to do?
In 2005, I faced a similar dilemma. I was in the midst of a clinical trial with a monoclonal antibody. Because the drug had annihilated my immune system, every germ and virus, whether it came from another person or naturally lived inside my body or on my skin, could pose a lethal threat. I washed and sanitized my hands obsessively and never touched my face. Social isolation was self-protection, so I left home only to go to the hospital or take solitary walks, a scarf wrapped over my nose and mouth. Holding a vision of myself as cancer-free and healthy, as though I already were, I felt that a brighter future was just a matter of time.
In a normal year, my family’s Thanksgiving tradition might start by serving a mid-day meal to guests at a local shelter, then welcoming family and friends to dinner in our home. But for us 2005 was no normal year and exposing me to other people wasn’t an option. Instead, we ordered in dinner for three—my husband, our teen-aged daughter, and me—and felt grateful. We connected with people by phone, and their intangible energy helped sustain my nuclear family through our crisis.
For us all, 2020 is no normal year. Together we face the potentially deadly risk of COVID-19. And we’re tired of social isolation. But what opportunities we have, including the opportunity to keep ourselves, our families, and our friends, safe, and to share our resources more widely.
Remember what they say before an airplane takes off? “If the oxygen masks drop down, put your own mask on before assisting others.”
This Thanksgiving, if you’re lucky enough to have a home, please stay there. Being alone doesn’t have to mean being lonely. Consider safe, helpful ways to support and connect with people. Perhaps order your dinner from a local restaurant to help keep cooks and staff employed. Perhaps donate to a local food bank or shelter so those less fortunate have meals to nourish them. Perhaps, in recognition of the historic roots of the day, contribute to an organization like the Indigenous Environmental Network which provides desperately needed food and emergency COVID-19 relief funds to Native Americans.
With challenge comes opportunity. We have the chance to stem COVID-19’s spread, and we have the chance to spread compassion. Compassion nurtures healing and hope. Its intangible energy creates real results.
When the twelve weeks of my clinical trial ended, I was frail and exhausted, but signs of cancer had decreased dramatically, and five months later, the disease was gone. It took two years and four months for my immune system to rebuild and I was able to resume normal life. With the welcome news that a vaccine will likely be available within the next few months, I feel optimistic that our collective timeline will be much shorter.
I believe in medical science and I believe in the power of holding a vision of good health. Now, as then, I think of my favorite equation ever: Hope = Belief + Expectation. I believe, and I fully expect, we can and we will stop COVID-19.
Imagine a world free of COVID-19 as if it already exists, and hold this vision with me. Imagine a world in which we care for ourselves and each other as one family.
Now expand the vision to embrace the planet. If we actively protect and preserve biodiversity—earth’s wondrously varied habitats and the countless species who thrive in them—we take a giant step to keeping hundreds of thousands of viruses in the plant and animal kingdoms where they belong, and where they won’t leap to us.
Now we know. Good health is global health.
Karen Lee Sobol lives in Boston, MA and is Artist and Author of Twelve Weeks: An Artist’s Story of Cancer, Healing, and Hope.