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Long Story Short: A tale of COVID, the music of beer

7/27/20



Don Keller

 

A pandemic tale

“Do you know anybody personally who has had coronavirus?”

 

The question came last week via Facebook Messenger from Don Keller, a local illustrator/designer and social media friend that I’ve verbally sparred with on occasion over topics regarding COVID-19. I’ve known a couple, I said, no one who died. Why was he was asking? Turns out, he and his wife Jennifer caught the virus as it was just beginning to appear in the US, only a few days after the first confirmed American coronavirus death. This was about a week before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic, and just after President Trump announced that the US had “fifteen people [with the virus],” adding, “Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared.”

 

Until now, few knew Don and Jennifer had been infected and recovered. “It’s always weird sharing personal health issues publicly, especially like this illness which has been super politicized,” says Don. “[I’m] never afraid to speak my mind publicly on the social issues, as you know, but personal health stuff... a little weird I guess.” The couple, who are both in their fifties, decided to make their story public in order to alert people to the importance of donating plasma to fight the virus, as they have done weekly for the past few months.

 

This is their story.

 

The beginning

“My office was located at Buffalo General,” explains Jennifer Keller, a twenty-three year employee of UB Neurosurgery as Educational Event and Medical Student Coordinator. Her job was eliminated last week, “a direct result of COVID-19,” she says. “In early March, many of the hospital residents were sick with the flu,” she recalls. “I honestly had not been sick since 2012. We are extremely pro-active with hand washing, hand sanitizer, and using Lysol in the common areas.”

 

On March 9, Jennifer came down with mild cold symptoms. Three days later she developed a fever. Word of the virus’s spread was dominating the nightly news, so, on March 13, Jennifer called her primary physician. Because of her position at the hospital, she was placed on the high priority list with the Department of Health (DOH) for COVID testing, but there were no tests available yet in Erie County. “Governor Cuomo was keeping them all in NYC,” she says.

 

On March 16, Jennifer’s fever spiked to 102.7. She was taking Robitussin DM, albuterol, Tylenol, and Ibuprofen. “This was my worst day,” she recalls. Two days later, the cough began, but her fever broke soon after. In retrospect, Jennifer’s symptoms were relatively mild. She experienced shortness of breath, but was able to function at home.

 

Watching Lester Holt on the world news each night, the couple saw alarming video of events unfolding in Italy, France, and Spain, causing Don anxiety, “and no doubt my wife as well,” he says, “though she never showed it.” (Women are strong like that.) The feeling in Jennifer’s lungs was like nothing she had ever experienced, different than the bronchitis she had as a child. The horrifying news reports scared her, though she didn’t let on to her family. Even so, her symptoms were less severe than the bout with the flu she had in 2012.

 

In the last days of Jennifer’s illness, Don had a weekend where he felt extremely fatigued. “I slept for sixteen hours straight, all day and night on a Saturday,” he says, “and had absolutely no appetite for three days.” At the time, fever was considered the defining symptom of COVID-19. Both took their temperature several times a day, and since Don never had a fever, he ruled out the virus. “I just thought I was tired and stressed out about Jennifer being sick,” he says.

 

Testing

On March 25, Jennifer got the call that they were ready for her to be tested, though her symptoms had already passed. “I was tested in the first group by the DOH at the satellite drive through clinic in Amherst” Jennifer recalls. “I felt like I was in a futuristic movie set as I drove through the hazmat clad line of workers in the highway department garage.” Don suspects the people doing the testing were fearful too. “Jen hit the automatic window button so they could administer the test to her,” he recounts, “and they loudly yelled to stop once it was barely an inch down!”

 

Despite her high priority status, it had taken twelve days for Jennifer to be tested, and the test came back negative. During their illness, the couple had voluntarily self-quarantined. Even now, with negative diagnoses, they wore N95 masks when in public. “I was the only person in the grocery store at that time with a mask on,” says Jennifer. This was when the Center for Disease Control and WHO were advising against wearing masks in public. “I’ve always believed that this virus was airborne, super contagious, and not transmitted by surface contact like the regular flu typically is,” says Don.

 

Neither has experienced any further symptoms, and a recent chest x-ray revealed that Jennifer’s lungs were clear, with no residual effects. When COVID-19 antibody testing became available, Jennifer, Don, and their sons went for that test. Jennifer had little doubt she had been infected, and the results confirmed it. Their sons tested negative. It was Don who was surprised when the lab technician called and said he had “outrageous amounts of COVID-19 antibodies in [his] system.”

 

Catching COVID

Six days before the onset of Jennifer’s symptoms, she spent time with a friend who was visiting from New York City. After returning home, the woman, who was in her seventies, began experiencing extreme exhaustion and a cough, but, because she had no fever, she was not tested. After hearing about Don’s results, the woman got the antibody test, which confirmed that she was an early COVID-19 victim. In retrospect, it’s likely Jennifer picked up the virus from the friend and passed it on to Don.

 

Lifesaving plasma

“We decided to donate plasma because we read that the antibodies would help find a cure through research,” says Jennifer, “and they were beginning to treat patients in the ICU with infusions of COVID survivors’ antibodies.” It turned out though, that doing so was nearly as hard as getting tested. Roswell Park required a positive DOH COVID-19 test, which neither had. Jennifer did some research and found that CSL Plasma would accept donors with positive antibody tests. The people there told them that their antibodies would be used to help develop a vaccine and to treat patients.

 

The process

Don admits to finding the plasma donor process “rather uncomfortable” due to his mild phobia of the needles—which are bigger than those used for standard lab tests—and blood. “I actually passed out during the blood draw for the antibody test,” recalls Don, “rolled off the table and smashed my head pretty good on the floor…donated some additional blood I wasn’t counting on!”

 

Now, he psyches himself up before each plasma donation to relax, but the pre-procedure blood pressure test betrays his anxiety. It takes a couple hours to withdraw blood, remove the antibodies in the blood plasma, and return the blood to the donor. “There’s some weird cold chill feelings you experience during the process, which I’m not crazy about,” says Don.

 

Then why do it?

After their first donation the couple didn’t go back immediately. Then Jennifer received a call from a friend in New York who had a family member that was being treated for cancer and had also been in the ICU due to COVID-19. “She was given the direct antibody serum and walked out of the hospital the next day cured,” says Jennifer. That’s when they started donating weekly.

 

“We are encouraged by the stories of people that we have heard made incredibly fast recoveries once getting the antibody transfusions,” Don says. He thinks a lot of people are unaware of the importance of donating, and many don’t get the antibody test even if they believe they’ve had the virus. Don wants people to know that donating plasma saves lives. “And it’s better than organ donation,” he says, “because you don’t have to be dead to do it.” He read an article stating that if just two percent of coronavirus survivors donated plasma weekly, there would be enough antibodies to treat every person with COVID-19 in the US. “That a lot of lives,” he adds.

 

Final thoughts

As someone who works in a medical field that treats cancer and other serious neurological and neurosurgical conditions, and having had COVID-19 herself, Jennifer has a perspective that most people don’t. “People get cancer every day,” she says. “Some die from that cancer, which is awful; however many, many, more survive and go on to live long productive lives.” She believes the fear associated with COVID-19 is disproportionate to the many other diseases diagnosed daily. She recognizes the need for mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing, particularly to protect those at higher risk. “However,” she says, “I am not afraid of COVID anymore. I feel safe to be in public with my mask.” She believes her duty now is to assist those at higher risk.

 

 

Music to buy beer by

There’s something I’ve been wondering for a long time, but I can’t get an answer. Most grocery stores play a mix of contemporary pop music over their sound system. Nothing too demanding. A popular choice is the song “Malibu,” for instance, which, in its blandness, makes Miley Cyrus sound wholesome again.

 

That’s what they play in Wegmans, anyway, where I shop. That is, until you head to the “beer shop” in the back of the store. There’s an entirely different mix in that corner that begins to overpower the regular music once you’ve passed the cream cheese. That’s about where Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” fades and is replaced by heavier sounds: manic drums, throbbing bass, blazing guitar. It’s Ziggy Stardust! I’m not even planning to buy beer, but I stop and listen to David Bowie, which is over too soon. Up next is “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” by Neil Young. Rock ’n’ roll will never die, at least in the beer department.

 

The music speakers are different there from the rest of the store: fuller, richer, louder. What’s the message I wonder, as “Brain Damage” by Pink Floyd begins? Are beer drinkers more likely to be rockers? Does the sound of a driving 4/4 beat make people thirsty for suds? I need facial tissues, but as I walk down the paper isle, CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” fades and mixes with “Breath,” by Michelle Branch. Not a bad song, but she’s no John Fogerty.

 

Out of curiosity, I ask the manager who programs the music in the beer shop, and why it’s different. Nothing in a supermarket is left to chance. Everything from where the produce aisle is located to which products are at eye-level to the color of the walls is carefully calculated to promote sales. The manager doesn’t know about the beer shop music; he never thought about it really.

 

I go back. “The Seeker” is followed by “Ramblin' Man”. I kill time by checking out the beer labels. Voodoo Ranger, Sweet Baby Jesus, Wicked Weed, Rogue Beer, Smuttynose: these are rockin’ brews which the music complements.

 

Still curious, I later call Wegmans’ corporate headquarters. The music selection in the beer aisle must come down from the top, I think. But the person I talk to doesn’t know either. It’s a music service, she says. Someone picked classic rock.

 

Back in the store, I’m incredulous at what I hear next: “White Light/White Heat,” by the Velvet Underground! This was hardly a top thirty song when it came out in 1968, and it’s still only familiar to informed music fans. Remarkably few young people have even heard of the Velvets (I’ve surveyed students in my college classes). “White Light/White Heat” was radical in its day. With its throbbing bass and a raw sound, it was intended to evoke the sensations produced by intravenous injection of methamphetamine. It ends with a heavily distorted electric bass playing over a single chord. Mainstream music fans of the day couldn’t bear to listen to it.

 

Today, no one blinks an eye or seems surprised as it plays in the supermarket. It’s beer music, now.  

 

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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