Dieudonne became a part of our household amidst chaos, grief and weariness. Objectively speaking, it wasn’t a good time for us to welcome a 4-year-old with medical issues who didn’t speak a word of English.
Of course, waiting for a “good time” to tackle that challenge is much like saying, “We’ll have kids when we’re ready.” You’re never “ready” to have kids. If we all waited until we were ready, the species would die out fairly quickly.
Still, this was about as far from a “good time” as a family could get.
A month before, we had buried a family patriarch, my father-in-law, an amazing man who raised three amazing daughters and helped shape the woman I love into the person and parent she is. He had been “off” for a few years, losing weight and having some heart issues. Things got serious in November 2020, and he landed in the hospital.
For two months, he struggled to battle back from heart surgery, a fight ultimately made unwinnable after complications from COVID and the realization that, even if he did fight his way back, he would never be the man he was, the man he needed to be to thrive. My father-in-law — my dad — was a doer. He didn’t sit around and watch TV very often. Yes, he could spend hours on the computer researching the latest recruits and potential recruits to his beloved Mizzou basketball or football teams, but he liked to move. At 80-plus years old, he was still riding his bike double-digit miles several times a week with his friends.
Dad was never going to live well with restrictions from a failing heart, and, in the end, I think he decided he didn’t want to.
During the two months he struggled in the hospital, Carla, my wife, became The Person. COVID restrictions in the hospital meant that only one family member could visit the hospital and that The Person could not change by the day. Carla was the right choice. She’s a caregiver and was in her element tending to her dad, at first from a window because she couldn’t enter his isolation room, then from his bedside.
But, my God, it took its toll. Carla is an extremely strong person, but no one is that strong. She watched as her dad withered away, the weight loss never stopping. In the end, he was emaciated. She was there as his mind faded for a thing we previously never knew existed — ICU delirium. Before-hospital Dad was sharp, witty, there. ICU delirium Dad lost touch with reality. Carla was there to see it all.
This was our first experience with what’s going to become more common. Our parents are getting older. Dad was the first to succumb. We had no playbook to go by, no way to say, “Well, when this happened to Mom, we did…”
And all of this was happening while I was struggling to recover from my own battle with COVID. The same situation that brought it to Dad brought it to my own home. Carla got it. She recovered fairly quickly. I did not.
The actual COVID wasn’t horrible. I had no respiratory symptoms. I had bad fatigue and brain fog. Things got a little better. And then they got worse. A lot worse. During the time Dad lay in the hospital struggling to survive, I was smashed by fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath if I did something so bold as climb a flight of stairs, a heart that randomly would go off the rails, joint pain and a horrible taste in my mouth. Right before the end of 2020, I started to see doctors to try to figure out what was wrong with me. Test after test after test showed a whole lot of nothing. I was dubbed a Longhauler and told “I got nuthin'” by doctor after doctor after doctor.
For months, I couldn’t get through a day without multiple rest periods, often including naps lasting at least an hour. My life became a series of chunks. Live a little for an hour or so. Rest. Try to do some work. Rest. Do the whole Dad thing. Rest. Try to take on some of the things Carla had to give up to take care of her dad. Fail. Rest.
LONGHAULER: A COVID Diary
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In short, I was a wreck. We were a wreck. And we had been for a lot longer than that.
Things overall had been challenging for quite some time. They’re made worse when mental illness is the ominous gray shading that mars your otherwise beautiful picture. The word “recovery” is interesting when it comes to matters of the brain. The reality is, for all the advancements we’ve made, there is still so much mystery. Some people respond really well to available treatments. I’m one of those who don’t, so “recovery” is often extremely challenging and filled with peaks and valleys.
To say that this, as well as my Longhaul COVID, added weight to Carla’s shoulders would be an understatement. A big, big understatement.
We’d also had a huge shift in family dynamics over the past year. It might seem inconsequential to some, but first our St. Bernard/lab mix Reggie died. I found her not breathing after an online counseling appointment. A few months passed and then our bulldog Brutus was diagnosed with cancer. He died two days later.
In the midst of that, our older son, Joey, spread his wings and took off for college, starting his next step at his Papa’s alma matter, Mizzou. Carla and I were filled with joy and high-fived each other for a job well done in getting that boy through childhood. But wow, the hole in our family was noticeable.
And then there was Jonah. Sweet, lovable, smiling, carefree Jonah. What Jonah has proven himself to be during this past year is adaptable. Our youngest son, soon to be 12, Jonah falls into the role of encourager. I don’t think he knows that he does it. He just does it. An extra hug for his mother. A genuine, “Howyadoin’ Dad?” for me. Jonah’s life was turned upside down again and again and again as all of this stuff happened. He is a lover of animals bigtime, so there was the loss of his dogs. Brutus slept in his room and then, one day, he was gone.
He said goodbye to his brother, losing the one daily companion he’s had since he was born, the guy he has only ever called Bubby who suddenly wasn’t there except for random weekends.
He watched as his dad crumbled and couldn’t do the things he (Jonah) loves — play games, have a catch, wrestle. “It’s OK, Dad,” he would say again and again after I said “No.” Not once did he whine at me when I told him I was going to take a nap and couldn’t play cards.
He dealt will the absence of his mom, who suddenly wasn’t able to do all the homeschooling she’d been doing with him. Now, Jonah was expected to do more of the work on his own while she was at the hospital and Dad was sleeping.
And he saw through Facetime calls and the tears of his mother how his Papa faded and then passed away.
A Crazy ‘Yes’
So yeah, that was the situation we were in when this strange kid from Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in western Africa, rolled out of the gate area in the Columbus, Ohio, airport on Feb. 12, 2021. A solitary woman named Biba had flown across the globe with not just Dieudonne, who from this point forward I’ll call D for simplicity’s sake, but with four other kids under the age of four, all of whom had medical issues that would be addressed in the United States. Oh, and I should mention she does this regularly, back and forth, back and forth. There is no element precious enough for the medal she deserves.
It was in the fall of 2020 when I wrote a story as part of my job at Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis about host parents who take care of kids from developing countries while they receive treatment they can’t find at home. I was struck by the reality that, for some of these kids, this treatment is the difference between a life of impoverished street-begging or even death and having a chance to actually go to school and do something, anything that gives them a shot in life. There’s no Burkina Faso Kids With Disabilities Act that helps pave the way for children whose legs are broken.
In fact, in some countries, kids with deformities as bad as those we treat at Shriners are thought of as demonically possessed. One little girl in Haiti came to Shriners from an orphanage, not because her parents were dead or horrible. In fact, her parents visited her there every day and were at the airport waiting for her when she returned from treatment. No, they put her in the orphanage because it was in a walled compound, safe from practitioners of a voodoo-type religion who would harm her if they caught her in an attempt to deal with the devil.
I came home the day I did the interviews for that story and told Carla about it. And then we just sort of looked at each other and said, “We’re gonna do this, aren’t we?”
So we filled out the paperwork in November, just before the poop hit the fan. As said poop was hitting the fan, we submitted it to Children’s Medical Mission West, an Ohio-based organization run by another woman who deserve a medal, Tami Shobe. During her lifetime, she’s welcomed more than 300 foster kids into her home. She runs this organization essentially by herself, with the help of people like Biba and a few other volunteers. She talked with Carla and I, approved us as potential host parents, and then we waited.
And truthfully, we sort of forgot about it for a while. As you read, we had a few other things on our minds.
Soon after Dad died, I received an email with the subject line, “Are you ready?????”
There was this 4-year-old in Burkina Faso who needed a host family in St. Louis. He had an undiagnosed leg condition. He would need several major surgeries and would be here six to nine months. Tami had arranged treatment at Shriners. Would we be willing to host him?
There was a strong case to be made for us to reply, “Are you crazy?”
Here’s the thing: If we didn’t do it, there was a chance no one else would. Host parents, as you might imagine, aren’t exactly plentiful. I asked: “If we say ‘no,’ is there someone else who will do it.” Tami replied: “Maybe…”
“How ‘Maybe?'” I responded.
If what D needed was available in Ohio, where Children’s Medical Mission West is based, it wouldn’t even be a “Maybe.” Tami’s network is bigger there. But what D needed was in St. Louis. There are maybe four host families here, including us. One of them has two kids from overseas right now. One of them has one. One of them just said goodbye to a precious little girl who was here for 16 months. They are far from ready emotionally to do it again right now.
So there was us.
We said yes.
Which was why, on Feb. 12, 2021, my wife and little adaptable Jonah were in the Columbus airport as Biba escorted this little troop of differently abled kids to a group of anxious would-be host parents.
Introductions were made. D stared out at this new world stoically. Biba gave him a lecture in his native tongue, French with some tribal influences. Then she gave Carla a warning: The kid can be a handful.
And for the next six to nine months, he would be our handful.
John Agliata is a lifelong storyteller and the marketing manager at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. He and his wife, Carla, live in Wentzville, Missouri. They have three sons, Jacob, who died shortly after birth in 2000; Joey, 19; and Jonah; 11. And a temporary kid from Africa.
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