I felt raw and exposed and embarrassed all at once. I have long been taught as a woman “never let them see you cry” – not in public and especially not at work. But I did that Tuesday.
I cried. I couldn’t control my tears. I couldn’t use my words.
It happened not just in public, but on CNN, in front of America and the world.
What moved me to tears was, at first, simply rage. Rage at those who won’t take our ills seriously and those who are actively fighting against the truth. They are putting people’s lives in danger.
I was on air to talk about Juliana Jimenez Sesma. Her story knocked me down. She left her job in real estate to take care of her mother, who was dealing with a lung condition. She didn’t want to do anything to expose her mom and stepfather to the coronavirus.
But in a deprived area of Los Angeles, the whole family became infected, including Sesma’s brother and his family who lived next door. The younger ones survived but Sesma lost her stepfather and then her mother in the space of 11 days.
I met her at her mother’s funeral. It was a most disturbing scene. An open casket in the corner of a parking lot – the only place available and safe for people to gather – with flowers perched on the asphalt below.
Sesma stood in front of me, a stranger, and told me her story. She was trying to be brave at her mom’s funeral, but how can you say goodbye to the most important person in your life in a parking lot? Then, I would not let myself cry, I was working. But I did let myself see, feel and hear it as the mariachi band played “Amor Eterno,” or “Love Eternal.”
I can’t tell you what a hard slap in the face it is to constantly experience two distinctly different worlds in one beautiful but imperfect America: One based on reality, the other on conspiracy and tribalism.
I’ve now been to 10 hospitals trying to deal with the pandemic. I’ve witnessed people writhing in pain, gasping for breath and near death from Covid-19 in ICUs across the country. I’ve seen doctors and nurses with exhaustion written all over their faces still battling like the pandemic just began, though we are 12 months in.
And then, as I make my way home and stop to pump gas, someone rolls their eyes at me and asks, “Why are you wearing a mask?” Like it’s me that’s bonkers.
Listening to Sesma’s voice as the story played on air well before the LA dawn, I realized that she would wake up without her mom and stepdad because of coronavirus. She will do this every day for the rest of her life. A double shot of pain every day. Pain that may go from a searing agony to a dull ache, but it will never leave.
And then I thought about where she would wake up. In South Los Angeles, there are no convenient urgent care clinics. The community has 10 times fewer doctors per resident than the rest of California, I was told by the head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital – the one facility that stands out in a health care desert.
The major grocery chains that saturate other neighborhoods are absent in South LA. The branches of national pharmacies have no sugar-free candy options, no low-sugar health bars. Just the stuff that rots your teeth and contributes to diabetes.
That may seem like an inconsequential thing. It isn’t. The most frequently done surgery at the community hospital is amputation due to diabetes.
Sesma’s stepfather had diabetes and asthma. Her mother, a lung condition. Covid devours people who have those kinds of comorbidities. When coronavirus turned up, it found the perfect victims. But premature death is not new in South LA. The life expectancy there is 10 years – TEN YEARS! – less than the rest of the City of Los Angeles, the hospital chief told us.
When I get home these days, there is no one to hug or to hold. I am self-isolating to keep any infection out of the lungs of my husband the best way I know how – staying in another room, wearing a mask at home, and taking a coronavirus test a few days after going to hospitals.
It’s lonely. But not as lonely as having a family member die, infected because I was nonchalant about the dangers.
This is not a joke and not a hoax. Before meeting Sesma, I had been to St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, a little outside the city. It was yet another hospital filled with Covid patients and gracious but exhausted doctors and nurses. I heard one patient coughing and struggling to breathe – each sip of air a painful event. I didn’t see the patient, but my heart raced and my eyes watered.
As I got the footage back to work, thinking again about how to tell this hospital’s story, to make people believe, I turned on CNN to see our whole world change.
It was January 6 and across the country in Washington was another deadly battle fueled by lies. A violent ill-informed mob was beating down the doors to the US Capitol, and they succeeded.
For years I have been saying some of these guys are talking about a civil war and they are going to act at some point. People would look at me the same way the maskless guy at the gas station did. I was met with an eye roll or push back that I was exaggerating. And yet there, in front of my eyes, an insurrection was unfolding. Stark. Violent. And real.
I just wanted to scream. If few thought this could ever happen in modern America, I always feared it would. And I know it is not over. Just as sure as coronavirus is poised to deal another destructive blow because of the Christmas and New Year’s revelry, militia members, white nationalists, Trump insurrectionists, conspiracy theorists and their supporters may deal yet another blow to American democracy as we know it.
So when you saw me cry, you witnessed my rage. I care about my country. I worry about the new and old ills facing us. And I feel like my country is on life support.