Nooreen and Rick Mann have every right to feel bitter about the hand fate dealt them. As the daughter and son-in-law of the very first person in Toronto struck down by COVID-19, they watched Nooreen’s beloved dad weaken and die before their eyes in a lonely hospital bed. As doctors in that same hospital, they were thrown into the battle against the virus that killed him, watching many others struggle for life as he had.
The experience tested their marriage and taxed their bodies and minds. Yet the last hours of 2020 found them dancing together in their kitchen, feeling not bitter but strangely thankful for all that a cruel year had taught them about how to live.
Nooreen’s father, Mubarak Popat, grew up in Uganda, the son of Indian immigrants. An Ismaili Muslim, he came to Canada after the Ugandan despot Idi Amin expelled tens of thousands of Asians in 1972 on a vow of “Africa for the Africans.” After working in a shoe factory, he set up as a grocer in Toronto’s Little India.
Last winter he went to London for the funeral of an older sister. He developed a fever when he came back. Nooreen wasn’t too concerned. Though 77, he was healthy and still running the grocery. Then he tested positive for the mysterious new virus that was making headlines around the world. He started having more trouble breathing.
Nooreen and Rick told him to come to the hospital in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, where Rick is an emergency-department doctor and Nooreen is, of all things, a lung specialist. When they saw him being wheeled through the hospital doors, he looked as if he had aged a decade.
Nooreen hoped he would improve once he got some care. Instead, he worsened. Doctors put him on oxygen, then a ventilator. The end approached. On March 21, Nooreen rushed into work to see him one last time and say the words that she needed to say, even if he didn’t hear them. His death came 21 years after her mother died of a rare lung ailment, a tragedy that helped lead Nooreen, then just 16, into a career in respiratory medicine
The next few months were the “absolute horrific bottom-of-the-barrel worst,” she says. She was in denial and shock and pain – “all of those things.” Like so many grieving people in COVID times, she was robbed of the religious rituals, time with family and hugs from friends that might have helped her through it.
As COVID-19 cases surged in the spring, Rick plunged into work in the emergency department, pulling long night shifts as Nooreen worked days. It was as if they were living in two different time zones, barely speaking for days on end. Then the woman who cared for their two young children stopped coming, fearful of working in a home with two hospital docs.
Nooreen felt like “a rubber band that was stretched and stretched and stretched.” Rick says they were constantly angry and tired and tearful, “just really, really scraping the depths of where either of us had been before.”
Early last fall they decided something had to change. With case numbers down, Rick cut down on his night work. They made sure to exercise and go on walks together. They focused more on their kids, two bouncing boys – Julian, now 5, and Dylan, 3 – who like to rock out to AC/DC and Punjabi bhangra. They got stable child care.
More important, they made a sort of pact not to let COVID beat them. Yes, they had been through something terrible. But so had many, many others. They still had good jobs, meaningful work, dedicated colleagues, wonderful kids, great friends. When they thought about it, they realized that the crisis could make them better: more resilient people, more attentive parents, a stronger, more caring couple.
Their old life was the usual mad rush of two professionals with high-octane careers and active kids. Nooreen says it was like a Sudoku game, all about filling in those squares. Pandemic life slowed things down and let them concentrate on what is important.
Now, she says, she tries to spend her days as if they were her last, even if that means just doing a jigsaw puzzle with her family. “This may not be the life we’ve chosen,” she says, “but this is the life we have now and there is a lot of happiness there.”
Their struggle isn’t over yet. With the COVID-19 emergency deepening again, the pressure is on at the hospital. Rick is coping with a steady flow of stricken patients who come to emergency fighting for air; Nooreen tries to comfort the frightened families of patients in the COVID ward.
But they feel armoured for the fight in a way they never were before. Nooreen says that in the hurricane that swept over her family and the world in 2020 “the person I was essentially came undone and I had to be put back together as this new person who feels much tougher.” She is trying to emulate the sunny outlook of her father, who never grew disheartened, even when he was forced to leave his home and become a refugee.
As a front-line hospital worker, Nooreen, 39, got vaccinated late last month. Rick, 37, got his shot on New Year’s Eve. That night, with the boys at Rick’s parents, they played some nineties hits and had an impromptu dance party while he made steaks and she chopped vegetables.
Around midnight, by accident, the early Bruce Springsteen tune 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) came on when their smart speaker misheard a request. Nooreen and Rick swayed to the music as Springsteen sang about how the fireworks shone on “all those stony faces left stranded on this fourth of July.” The song was playing when the midnight hour passed and a new year began.
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