I'm a doctor who tried to plan an extremely safe Thanksgiving for 3 people. My son got COVID-19 anyway - it wasn't worth the scare it put us through.
The pandemic has changed many families' personal vacation plans. Skynesher / Getty Images
Dr. Robin Schoenthaler was a long-time radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
She and her two sons recently got together for a quick, science-based Thanksgiving dinner that was as safe as possible.
A few days later, one of her sons tested positive for COVID-19.
"Was it worth waking up at 4 a.m., the fear of the test results, the constant texting to check symptoms while going through that first week of absolute uncertainty?" She writes.
She wants others to learn from her family's experiences and cancel their vacation plans.
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I've been a doctor in Boston and obsessed with the coronavirus pandemic since the first stories from China trickled into my mind. Every day I listen to podcasts and medical lectures from a long line of virologists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease doctors. Every week I write an essay for my friends and family near me about what we have learned about COVID-19 and how we can protect ourselves.
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My sons - Mackenzie, 24, and Cooper, 21 - live nearby and have been what I call "COVID aware" from the start. Both children work and study in their apartments, have little friendship pods, excellent COVID hygiene, especially with me and anyone who falls into a risk group, and both of them had mostly stayed at home for the past two weeks.
Because of this, we have agreed to have a science-based "as safe as possible" Thanksgiving, following all of the techniques I've researched.
We kept it small (just the three of us), we kept it short (two hours) and we kept cooking time in the kitchen to a minimum. We ate with the windows and doors open and the fans on, and the boys sat wide apart in the dining room while I ate in the adjacent kitchen. We only gathered once to snap a couple of two-second photos, smiling behind our masks, and instinctively inhaling.
Mackenzie Schoenthaler (left) and his brother Cooper Schoenthaler at Thanksgiving dinner. Robin Schoenthaler
In fact, unless we are actively putting food in our mouths, we have masked, put our masks back in place between servings, and chat as we eat.
Everything went perfectly.
But then on Saturday morning when I was out walking with a friend, Kenzie wrote to me, "Sooooo, I have bad news." Half a minute later he sent a second text that said, "I feel terrible."
I knew immediately what it was - he was sick with COVID-19. Which meant he'd been contagious on Thanksgiving.
Each parent has their lowest parental time. That was mine. I bent down on the sidewalk and just couldn't get up.
Read more: COVID-19 threatens to create a "lockdown generation" in Europe: Therefore, young people could be the ones to pay for another crisis
I could only think, "Why, why, why didn't we just skip Thanksgiving this year? And now it's too late to stop the tsunami that is coming our way."
The rest of Kenzie's texts confirmed my fears: he had a fever, body aches and a headache. He had lost his sense of smell and taste. He tested positive for COVID later that day.
This is exactly how COVID-19 spreads: a person like my beloved son can have it, be contagious, but no symptoms at all for several days, not a single hint before getting sick.
This is exactly why we were so meticulous on our Thanksgiving Day. We knew it was possible that one of us was this asymptomatic contagious person. Not likely, not even likely. Kenzie has five friends in his bladder. All had been tested while traveling the week before and were negative. All have since been tested and remained negative and all were asymptomatic. He was just careful shopping in a couple of large stores.
Dr. Robin Schoenthaler is a Boston-based radio oncologist. Dr. Robin Schoenthaler
We had absolutely no reason to believe that either of us had COVID-19 on that Thanksgiving Day, but we couldn't be sure. So we followed science and opened the windows, turned on the fans, sat far apart and masked almost every moment we didn't have a fork in our mouth.
But a "little friend" turns out to be an oxymoron. And "mostly bubbly" isn't good enough. There are no shortcuts, no bending of the coronavirus rules.
And as it turned out, the precautions we took worked. Cooper and I are COVID-19 negative. And Kenzie has had a tough week but just keeps getting better. We are all getting better.
Read more: After a Boston architecture firm reopened its office, employees came back voluntarily - and every employee said they felt safe. Here's what worked and what problems it is still trying to fix.
But was it worth bringing my little family together for a pumpkin pie?
Was it worth it that Kenzie felt immensely guilty for possibly exposing us? Was it worth the uneasiness of having to tell your contacts they needed to be tested and then go into 10 day quarantine?
Was it worth all of the 4 a.m. wake up, fear of test results, and constant texting to check symptoms while we went through that first week of absolute uncertainty about how things would go?
Will I ever hold another Thanksgiving Day in the middle of a pandemic? Absolutely not.
And Christmas 2020?
No possible way. Not a bit. No chance.
Dr. Robin Schoenthaler was a longtime radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also a writer, storyteller, and obsessed student of epidemics.
This story originally appeared on Schoenthaler's Facebook page and the Boston Globe website. It was republished with permission.
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