DURHAM, N.C.—A brisk day in North Carolina. A little overcast. Chilly outside. But you don’t know much about the weather because you are a 10-year-old boy, stuck on the fifth floor of Duke Hospital. You have myeloid leukemia.
You’re name is Reese Loggins. You are a fourth-grader. Bald. You have a few whisps of hair left after treatments. A perpetual smile. Some freckles, but not too many.
A nurse brings lunch on a tray.
“Reese,” your mother says. “What do you say to the nurse?”
So you tell the nurse, “Thank you.”
Parents are always doing this. They always remind you to say stuff like “yes sir,” “no ma’am,” “yes please,” and “thank you.”
And you say these words a lot because Duke Hospital, which is your home right now, is a madhouse. Everyone is working overtime. Over-overtime, actually. Nurses, doctors, techs, custodial staff, cafeteria workers. Everyone is slaving themselves to the bone because this is a “pandemic.”
The last place anyone wants to be during a worldwide healthcare crisis is a hospital. Medical professionals have it hard right now. Because the whole world always expects them to “do” something. And if they can’t do it, well, find someone who can.
And it’s not just Duke. North Carolina is no day at the beach right now. Experts projected that North Carolina’s coronavirus crisis will peak at the end of April. Estimates say the state will be 862 hospital beds, 625 ICU beds, and 954 ventilators short of what they’ll need to treat patients.
So the place is flat nuts. Doctors are working themselves silly. Medical workers are following strict, almost unimaginable protocols when it comes to cross-contamination. Throughout the hospital, medical staffers are constantly stripping off gowns, replacing gloves, goggles, visors, facemasks, and powered purifying respirators.
It’s like a scene from a science fiction movie. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Duke feels like right now. A very big budget sci-fi movie.
Nurses pull odd hours. Doctors live on vending machine food. And even though North Carolina is a mess, this is Duke University Hospital. If anyone knows how to meet a challenge, it’s these guys.
But you don’t spend too much time thinking about this stuff because, like I said earlier, you’re a kid. Furthermore, you’re pretty tired from all the cancer treatments.
You’ve been stuck here for awhile. You just had a bone marrow transplant. You have been living in this room for so long you forgot what the outside world looked like. Then this coronavirus thing hit, and the whole world went nuts.
Doctors say you’ll be released later this summer. You are crossing your fingers.
Mostly, you just sit by your window, watching the construction outside. There’s a lot of it. Every day, you watch men in neon vests and hardhats operate heavy machinery, making loud noise.
It’s great. You love watching them because you’re a male. And males like big, loud machines. This obsession does not go away once you get older. It just gets more expensive.
But something is weird today, construction-wise. It’s a quiet outside. You glance out the window to see all the workers facing your room. Each one of them. Looking right at you.
What are they doing?
You hear a beeping noise. It’s the crane. The huge, yellow, awe inspiring machine that’s been lifting AC units and piles of debris, day in and day out. It’s carrying something different this time.
When you’re a kid stuck in the pediatric oncology unit, you live for things like cranes.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
What’s going on out there? What’s the crane lifting? You can’t quite see it. It’s too far away.
Then you hear something else. Is that a song? Wait a minute, are the construction workers SINGING?
No way. This can’t be. You squint your eyes. You can’t see their mouths moving since they all wear surgical masks, but you can almost swear they are singing. So you listen carefully.
Yes! They ARE SINGING!
They are all looking straight at you and singing: “Happy birthday, dear Reese…”
That’s when your mother gasps. She points through the window to the crane, which is carrying something suspended by ropes.
“Look!” your mother says. “It’s a bike!”
A bike? What? You hardly believe it. But she’s right. It’s a bike. You watch it sail through the air toward your window.
Then you hear more voices. Lots of them. You see that your room is full of nurses. A whole crowd of them, standing amidst the lit-up machines, tubes, and medical computers. Men and women in scrubs, all singing to you.
“Happy birthday, dear Reese…”
You’re not really sure what to do here. I mean, it’s a little embarrassing. What DOES a kid do in a situation like this? Take a bow? Make a speech?
So you look out the window again. Now the bike is dangling in front of your window. You count almost 60 blue-collar men singing. They stand before a huge hand-painted sign hanging on the jobsite. It reads: “Happy Birthday Reese!”
You see your father standing outside among the workers. Singing his guts out.
The song finishes and everyone starts applauding. Loudly. The nurses, medical staffers, doctors, the construction men, your parents. Everyone is clapping. For you. It’s your 10th birthday, and you never knew you had so many friends.
Your mother points out the window at the swinging bicycle again. “What do you say, Reese?”
Thank you. That’s what you say. Thank you.