Parsia Jahanbani

This medical worker used to be a 'hero.' Now he feels hated

Updated 1004 GMT (1804 HKT) September 4, 2020

In a series of essays called The Distance, Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans in the pandemic. Email thomas.lake@cnn.com if you have a story idea.

(CNN)I remember how it felt in March, as the shadow began to fall. Empty shelves at the grocery stores. Sirens wailing in New York. And with the dread came a fleeting glimpse of national unity. We cheered from the balconies as the nurses changed their shifts. In Irvine, California, a medical worker saw a message in chalk from neighbor children: "Thank you so much for what you do." Someone put a sign outside his apartment. It said, "A hero lives here."

That was five or six months ago, or perhaps another lifetime. When I talked to Parsia Jahanbani in mid-August, the warmth and goodwill were gone.
"Last week," he said, "I had somebody flip me off."
Parsia works at Families Together of Orange County, a non-profit that provides medical and dental care to the underprivileged. He's an expanded-function dental assistant -- basically a dental nurse practitioner -- and he drives a giant bus called a mobile medical unit to various homeless shelters. His organization lost about one-third of its staff early in the pandemic to furloughs, resignations and other factors. The pandemic makes dental work especially dangerous.
One morning, as colleagues departed, Parsia saw his 80-year-old father, the dental director, sitting behind his desk.
"And I go to talk to him, 'I'm like, 'Why aren't you going home?' He's like, 'This is my ship. I'm the captain...I can't go home.' Like, 'You're 80. You're at risk. You -- if you get sick, this is it. Do you understand that?' And he starts crying."
His father reluctantly went home, leaving Parsia to face his own dilemma at age 36. He has a rare and mysterious neurological condition called cluster headaches. These sporadic headaches come with seizures, and they've put him in the hospital several times. His treatment for the intermittent symptoms include immunosuppressive drugs that could increase his vulnerability to the coronavirus.
More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs this year. Millions more, including Parsia, have been forced to answer a horrifying question: Do I want or need my job so much that I'll keep doing it even if it might kill me?
Parsia Jahanbani giving a coronavirus test.
Parsia could recall a moment from a few years earlier, when his seizures were incapacitating. He says he made a deal with God: "Give me the health to do this and I promise to serve." And so, when the coronavirus question posed itself, Parsia answered yes.
Now he wouldn't just do dental work. He'd be the one giving coronavirus tests. Sweating in his face shield and goggles and mask and full-body Tyvek suit, jamming swabs into the throats of strangers who coughed and sneezed all over him.
"We knew that we were risking our lives going back to work," he said. "But I remember one day we showed up to the Salvation Army's emergency shelter and a group of our patients that are homeless, they were on a lockdown. They couldn't leave the shelter...And as I'm pulling up in the parking lot, I see five or six people standing behind the chain-link fence. And one of them was holding a pizza box. As we get closer, he kind of opens the lid of the pizza box. And on the top part of it, on the lid part of it, he had written, 'Thank you.' And the bottom part was, 'Our medical workers.' And he opened the box and kind of showed me the sign and the other four kind of clapped for us. And as I'm driving, I started crying. I started bawling. I couldn't hold it back. And I turned around and told the doctor, you know, 'This is why we're here.'"
April, May, June. President Donald Trump encouraged armed protesters to rebel against mandatory shutdowns in Michigan. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. More than 1,000 health professionals signed a letter supporting the mass demonstrations that followed, leaving some Americans confused about which gatherings were safe. The coronavirus death toll surpassed 50,000; 100,000, 150,000. Across the political spectrum, people were some combination of sad, angry, tired, bored, sick of this whole nightmare of a decade of a year. National unity? A distant memory.
Parsia kep