I wonder if you have seen that commercial, the one advertising cold medication? An ill and stricken man lays prone on his bed, Chopin’s Funeral March playing in the background. He pleads with his partner Pam to call his mom. Unmoved, Pam tosses him a bottle of liquid remedy. The subtext can be clearly read in Pam’s expression: get over yourself. A few frames later, he is snoring like a ‘200 pound baby’… even with a man-cold.
It is a clever thirty seconds that wonderfully satirizes men when they don’t feel well. It pitches the stereotype of the big, tough man, knocked out of the driver’s seat, making all too big a deal over a cold, reduced to a whimpering man-child by a virus. Funny stuff … about a year ago.
January 25th was an anniversary of sorts in Canada. On this day in 2020, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Canada was recorded. It happened in Toronto, when a man returned from Wuhan, China. He displayed no symptoms of illness upon arrival, but he became very sick and was hospitalized the next day. He was Canada’s ‘patient zero’, and despite the number of potential contacts he had on his journey home, he passed the virus only to his wife. Both patients made full recoveries. On January 25th, I was thinking about patient zero as I waited in line at a local clinic, making all too big a deal over a cold.
I caught a cold this week. I was quite certain of it, recognizing both the symptoms and the pattern of a sinus cold working through my body. I don’t succumb to illness often but, every few years, I will be taken out by a cold. It follows a very predictable pattern for me: sore throat on day one, raw nose with sniffles and sneezes on day two, migration to my chest with a dry cough on day three, and by day four I’m on the mend. This bout seemed very typical; however, as the attendant on the other end of an 8-1-1 call reminded me, “This is not a typical year.”
In a typical year, I quite possibly would have reported to work on day two or three. If I were to be completely honest, through the years there have been episodes of illness when I went to work every day, toughing it out and indispensable to the end. In a typical year, I would have covered my mouth when coughing and tried to keep my distance from people, but it would not have been predominant in my mind. And, in a typical year, I would not have been overly concerned that I may pass this virus along: come on, someone gave it to me! But this year, I discovered there is no such thing as having ‘just a cold’.
I spent time on day one rationalizing my illness, convincing myself I just had a cold. But unlike every other year, I ruminated over the days leading up to the sore throat. Where had I gone? Who was in my space? At London Drugs, who had touched the shampoo bottle before I picked it up? And right behind that thought came another: who picked up the shampoo bottle I put down in exchange for the one I bought? Lurking in behind all this angst was the nagging truth I was trying to ignore: what if this isn’t just a cold? I did not leave my home on day one.
Day two unfolded just as I would have predicted, the sore throat fading and the sniffles taking centre stage. My rationalization continued. It was not that I feared taking the test for COVID-19; rather, I was still seeing this situation through Pam’s eyes, and resisted making a big deal over a cold. It took most of the day and that conversation with the 8-1-1 attendant to sort me out. I got the subtext of her comment, stating this year was not typical: she was telling me to get over myself. So I left my home on day two, and stood in line for a test.
On day three, my body continued to follow the predictable pattern. Unlike years past, though, I spent day three at home. Just before noon on this day, my results arrived in a text message: I tested negative for the COVID-19 virus. I just had a cold. Of course, I was relieved to learn this, but it brought home with force the day-to-day experience of our members and all those who work and learn in our schools. How many mornings are spent rationalizing? How many worry over that pebble of doubt?
In a typical year, when the demands on school leaders – although great – were perhaps a little less, we would negotiate with ourselves and accede to duty over health. How much negotiating is happening in these atypical times when we may feel a greater sense of duty?
It has not been a typical year, nor will it be. Even with vaccinations on the horizon and a plan for distribution and administration, it may be some time before we ‘just have a cold’ again. This heightened awareness of our health, and the potential impact we may have on others, is a very good thing. Our school leaders must not feel they are abandoning their passengers when not driving the bus with their own two hands. We develop, nurture and work with teams for a reason, and our teams will do for us what we have done for them. Unlike Pam’s spouse with his lament for his mom, we have put systems in place that will keep our bus on the road. And even with just a cold, we need a good healthy dose of time to heal and to calm before it is safe – and smart – for us to take the wheel again.