Books·Transmission

Brian Brett recalls getting ill and spending a weekend in the COVID-19 hospital ward

My Weekend at the COVID Ward is a personal essay by Brian Brett, part of CBC Books' series about life during COVID-19.

My Weekend at the COVID Ward is a personal essay by Brian Brett, part of CBC Books' Transmission series

My Weekend in the COVID Ward is an essay by Brian Brett, part of CBC Books' Transmission series. (Submitted by Brian Brett, Ben Shannon/CBC)

My Weekend at the COVID Ward is a personal essay by Brian BrettIt is part of Transmission, CBC Books' original writing series reflecting on life during COVID-19. Read more works from Transmission here.

During a heat wave in 2015, I developed a blister. Within four months my foot was rotting from a 'hospital bacteria' (MRSA). I endured a hurricane of pain: six heart failures, hepatitis c, pericarditis, osteomyelitis, years of drip antibiotics, pneumonia. Followed by two different "fatal" liver cancers and their painful cures. 

I was a mess, yet a hopeful mess, still reaching for my 70th birthday.

Brian Brett (Photo courtesy Erin Marie Byrnes)

Then along came COVID-19. I'm so high up the endangered ladder it gives me altitude sickness. Bad heart. Bad lungs. Almost non-existent liver. 

Naturally I came to fear dying in a hospital from COVID-19. 

On March 16, there was an ache in my sinus. I'd taken the flu vaccine so I suspected at worst this was a head cold.

The next day arrived with a star-spackling headache and a nasal tickle all the way to my throat, while my skull rang. By dawn I was hacking out my lungs.

Too paranoid to visit my doctor, even gloved and masked, I phoned.

After we discussed my symptoms and her prescriptions she warned that if I grew worse I should go to the hospital. But since I didn't have a fever nobody would test me for COVID-19.

I'm so high up the endangered ladder it gives me altitude sickness. Bad heart. Bad lungs. Almost non-existent liver.

Within two weeks my lungs were gargling. My stomach was so brutalized I could only eat soft boiled eggs, mandarin oranges and dehydrated chicken soup. By then I was so ill I dreamed I was having a fever. 

But I was over the hump... maybe... the gurgling lungs were fading away, though I was buried by waves of nausea. Then suddenly yes, I was having a fever! 

Oh no.

When I entered emergency, they slapped me into a bed before even taking my mask and gloves off, and wheeled me into a private room.

Undressing me is when we noticed my leg and we gazed at each other, as if wondering when did that happen? It had been slightly red upon first illness, not this huge inflamed trunk. Was I hallucinating too?

I was now convinced I had COVID-19. 

Acclaimed Canadian author Brian Brett says he was born strange. And he seems determined to die on his own terms. After a succession of medical problems and illnesses that would test the faith of Job, and now a grim prognosis, this most singular of Canadian literary figures is doing what great writers do: writing. And stealing flowers. 27:25

Someone stuck a golf club up my nose and massaged my brain pan with a swab — the coveted COVID test. Yuck!

Meanwhile I was mainlining electrolytes and antibiotics, and ingesting fistfuls of pills. I was so woozy I suspect my answers caused more confusion.

This is south Vancouver, a neighbourhood so multicultural that it's undefinable. The ward sounded like the international lobby of Vancouver Airport, only here they were having a lot of fun even if at an efficient pace. I was impressed.

The next day I learned I'd passed the COVID test. 

It was my good luck that another bacteria was killing me, the nurse said as she stuck a second, confirming golf club up my nose and swished it around, making my toes almost curl up to my ears. "Uh ... uh ... uh ..." was my reply. 

"What did you say?" she asked with a benevolent smile.

A few hours later, thirsty, I stepped into the bustling ward. The laughter and banter stopped and everyone glared. Hands pointed at me as if I were a wicked kid: "Go back inside your room!"

And that's when I learned I was in the COVID ward. "Great," I thought, "why not visit the devil I feared most." Then the burble of the busy nurses grew again, and I smiled, feeling free at last of my fate and fear. If I could go through the last hellish five years and walk into the ward I most dreaded, I should be ready for anything.

If I could go through the last hellish five years and walk into the ward I most dreaded, I should be ready for anything.

My real enemy was the infection surfacing mysteriously in my leg and stomach. The gurgling lungs faded away. 

In another two days I arrived home with a bottle of Suntory scotch and an unhappy lobster. My beautiful daughter-in-law had let herself in and cleaned up the kitty litter, and comforted my lonely cat, before flushing the entire messy house. 

Ill and useless, I'd abandoned a house of dirty dishes and laundry. 

When it was practically shining, she left. 

I unwrapped the scotch at the kitchen counter, careful not to drink anything. This was for my 70th birthday in less than seven hours. 

After years of death threats, whether by health or accident, there was only a few hours ahead. When I was 20 and stricken with a genetic syndrome, the doctor told me "your kind have no history of living beyond 40." He's long dead now.

So I got my COVID test in the end. 

Sometimes not catching a virus can be just as scary as catching it. All of us go through a lot. Many die. Many live. My time will come yet. Meanwhile, I received a few days of joy from the laughing, living, complex COVID-19 ward.


About Brian Brett

Brian Brett is a poet, fiction and memoir writer. (Submitted by Brian Brett)

Brian Brett is a poet, fiction and memoir writer, journalist and former chair of the Writers' Union of Canada. His 13 books include The Colour of Bones in a Stream and the bestselling memoir Trauma Farm, which won numerous prizes, including the Writers' Trust of Canada for best Canadian nonfiction book. His most recent book is the memoir Tuco and the Scattershot World: A Life with Birds.

Brian Brett is surrounding himeself with flower. He tells guest host Laura Lynch why. 9:10

About Transmission

Transmission is a new series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. 

Transmission is part of the Art Uncontained initiative from CBC ArtsArt Uncontained offers inspiration for audiences and support to the Canadian artistic community in these unprecedented times.

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