Lice and viral aerosols

This month, I was to make a first-ever return to my birthplace.

Apart from reconnecting with relatives, I wanted to finally bring closure to a traumatic event that tormented me for years. It was there that I had my first experience under quarantine. That’s what’s so ironic about then and now. It wasn’t an action taken by informed guardianship or social responsibility. Instead, the isolation was the result of a primitive and inhumane standard of care.

It was October of 1990 and tension filled the air in the streets of Ukraine. We had just lived through the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl, so the ubiquity of gas masks was a part of many of my memories. The current personal protective equipment deficit reminds me of those days.

Then we ‘hid’ from radiation. Now, we hide from viral aerosols.

Life was confusing, the USSR was collapsing and escapism ruled the world.  Like other new parents amidst a crisis, mine meandered away from answers when met with my endless questioning. As a precocious only child, I talked to strangers whenever possible and accepted our grim reality on condition that I could only ‘go on’ living through fantasy. I created imaginary worlds to find solace in and draw from to entertain myself and the adults around me.

One day as she was brushing my hair, my mother noticed a strange patch on my scalp. My grandma was a doctor, so through her connections I got to see a specialist the following day. They explained that it was an infection caused by the widespread lice/ human flea infestation common among kids at the time. They also confirmed that it was contagious, and ordered a hairless treatment under a strict quarantine. In true Soviet fashion, they didn’t explain the details to me. I knew something was wrong but had no idea what it would take to fix it.

My mother did not react well to the order. She cried and I felt responsible for her pain. As my father shaved off my hair that night, I sat firmly in the chair pleading with her to not be sad. Unprepared for a hospitalization, I thought we’d spend a few hours at a clinic and return home—a dose of medicine I was willing to endure.

The week flew by and next thing I knew we were there. Through minimal conversation, a nurse waiting outside proceeded to escort me in. When I realized my parents weren’t joining, something feral in me awoke. It felt like I was being abandoned; that my health problem deemed me unworthy of a family. What felt like an injustice, my grandma’s right to join [as a medical professional] over my parents angered and frightened me. As I got pulled inside, I watched my father quell my mother standing there in a puddle of her own tears.

This is where I’m going to live, I thought.

First, nurses showed me the shared dormitory. Then, they introduced me to my roommates. Each minute felt like an eternity as white walls caved in under the high ceilings. The most subtle of sounds traveled from corner to corner and private thoughts had the potential to be heard. As my legs moved, my mind floated.

Eye blink, heart beat, step forward. Repeat.

The mood was restless and desperate. Echoing cries were the soundscape of daily life. The energy was dark, unforgiving and cold to the bone. Every few days, a flaming torch was used to burn the infection off my scalp while I laid atop a sterile steel table. It hurt so bad that in the beginning I cried. Once I sensed that this frustrated the doctor and delayed the process, I bucked up. By week two I was slightly cringing at the pain, and by week three I’d slip into a dream state and feel no pain at all.

How quickly kids adapt to torture.

The hospital doubled as an orphanage for children with chronic conditions, and some of my roomies were victims of the AIDS epidemic whose heroin-addicted parents passed away shortly prior. Determining who had living parents and who did not was of primary import to these residents. Those claiming at least one parent enjoyed a higher rank among the group, so right away, I knew I was dealt a fine hand of cards. Bed-making disobedience never ended well so we helped one another avoid disciplinary action. I bonded with a girl who’d, through our cafeteria window, often point to a shanty in the distance. She said her mother lived there ‘eating her own snot,’ and that soon enough she would return for her. Something told me she would not, so I promised to take care of her.

Much like life in prison, we were shut off from the outside world and visits were rare and tightly controlled. Two weeks into my stay, a shocking visit from my parents thawed some of my cold inner hardness. After interacting through an indoor glass window for an hour, we separated and again I found myself torn between hope and despair.

No one could say if and when this would come to an end.

This treatment took three weeks during which I developed survival tendencies that evolved into both personal strengths and deep flaws in character. Some of these were abusive behavior patterns that are taking years to unlearn while honoring the uniquely special set of skills I also gained. Despite how traumatizing it was, this quarantine pales by comparison with the unfolding tragedy we face today.

I don’t feel imprisoned or abandoned the way I did then, as this experience is packed with opportunities. In rediscovering the loving inner voice that gets muffled by constant processing of social interactions, I’ve resumed creative projects and embarked on small wellness journeys — both of which I failed to make time for pre-pandemic. I also postponed my return to Ukraine to next year and I am so glad it worked out this way.

Through a new frame of reference to capture the experience in words, closure will be that much more meaningful. Had I not had this chance for reflection, perhaps I wouldn’t have been ready to physically face and make peace with the memory.

Alas, even through crisis, the universe shows us connections we were too preoccupied to see.