Millie LaFontaine: The rules of biology are rules for all

For the Monitor
Published: 2/26/2021 6:15:14 AM

I’m suddenly out of commission this week, blinking with surprise at how fast it happened, and feeling chagrin at the fact I didn’t see it coming.

I have enjoyed good health for so long, after all. Despite the fact that, during my career as a physician, I walked with patients daily on their journeys facing illness or disability, it turns out I’ve acted as though little of that applies to me.

I fell while skiing the other day. Why, you might ask, did I think it was a good idea for someone like me, past retirement age, to ski after a hiatus of several years? Well, I reasoned, my bones are great for someone my age; plus, I eat right, take my calcium and Vitamin D, and get plenty of exercise every day. Besides, I’ve fallen while skiing enough times in the past to know it’s no big deal. This time, though, I ended up with a fractured bone in my pelvis. I no longer bounce like I thought I should.

I’ve been thinking about this, and it occurs to me that I’m not alone in acting as though the rules don’t apply to me. During the pandemic, that way of acting has perhaps been almost as widespread as the virus itself. When news of a novel coronavirus broke in January and February of last year, our political leaders downplayed its threat. After all, they told us, Americans are strong, and free, and somehow above it all. Pandemics are a thing of the past. Our health care system is the best in the world, and our health care professionals can handle anything we throw at them. And we bought into the myth. As in Lake Wobegon, we think we are “all above average.”

It didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. Not only is it impossible for everyone to be above average, the disparities along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines are staggering, and the virus only highlighted and drove a crowbar into those divides.

But still our magical thinking persisted. We needed to live life, after all, didn’t we? We Americans felt entitled to fun in the sun, the pleasure of crowds, the solace of a drink with a few dozen friends. We needed to get back to play – and work. Yes, our leaders said to get back to work. Those who were fortunate enough could work from home. But we now know that the risks of work on the front lines were enormous, and fell onto the backs of those least able to mitigate those risks.

My first impulses are like most people’s. I would rather think that the rules don’t apply to me, even when I know better. When it became clear that older individuals are disproportionately affected by COVID and are at much higher risk of becoming ill or dying, my first thought was I might be chronologically old, but I’m not “old.” My good sense prevailed, though, and I’ve done everything I can to protect myself and those around me since then. Our children and grandchildren have only seen us on video. Our friends have seen us masked and distanced, and almost exclusively outdoors.

We as a nation have chosen to disregard rules and science throughout this pandemic, and, a half a million deaths later, even with an end in sight, many of us are still in a state of denial. Too many of us think we are better off living our lives as if nothing is happening, or that we are better off without a vaccine than with one. Now that vaccines are becoming available, we need to listen to our scientists more than ever.

I’m concerned, of course, about the many people who for generations have experienced discrimination at the hands of our government or even our health care systems. They have reason to eye a mandate from the powers that be with suspicion. They deserve and require careful outreach and respectful dialogue.

But I’m asking those who somehow believe that the rules of biology don’t apply to them to please think again. None of us can resist the virus by force of will, no matter how strong-willed we are, no matter how above average we think we are.

It’s human to think we can beat the odds. But that’s why I’m sitting here with a cracked pelvis. It would have been wiser for me to respect the biology of aging. We all need to respect the biology of the virus, and gratefully accept the vaccines our scientists are developing for the protection of us all.

(Millie LaFontaine of Concord is a retired neurologist.)

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