True friendships emerge in the time of Covid

By Rachel Holtzman

Special to the Mountain News

Free flowing thoughts of Rachel

I have a nomination for the Hero Chronicles, or whatever they may be called in the face of Covid 19. It’s not a nurse or doctor or the person who sterilized all the instruments used to treat desperately ill patients. It’s not the driver of the morgue van that had to assist in loading up the body bags to be transferred to the refrigerated storage containers at a local funeral home. No, I nominate Gabriella Rachel, an unsung hero who had been restricted to her 8’x10’ bedroom for well over three weeks, leaving the space, escorted, only to use the bathroom when absolutely necessary. This was the stay-in-place Covid rule for her house, an adult group home for the developmentally disabled. Her forms of diversion in the 24/7 box called her room were a television set, the radio, a CD player and the use of the house telephone for a few hours a day. But the years of over medication left her with tremors that made using the phone or the CD player a challenge. She’s been in the system for more than two-thirds of her life and I’ve known her for all that time. She calls me daily, 10:00 am every morning, and often more than that. I never ignore her calls. We are friends.

I worked in our County hospital’s psych unit as a Dance/Movement Therapist. Of the hundreds of those in-patients who were discharged to out-patient programs, Rachel stood out. The combination of her disability, her anxiety and her neediness drew me to her. Her given name Gabriella earned her the nickname Gabby. Oh, that she was. Her pressured speech was like a propeller that spun so fast, it repelled the very people she wished would engage her. As a client in the health care system, many workers – counselors, therapists, social workers, house managers – came and left her. She attached to each of them, and then as they became reassigned she experienced loss again and again, replicating the loss of her parents less than a year before.

Under all the pressure and fear, I sensed a sweetness in her that she felt too vulnerable to trust. I wanted to cut through that wall of rapid-fire speech and help her find a softer core and the strength to depend on it. We needed to identify the hidden part of her. Her middle name was our entrée – Rachel, a lovely gentle name. From then on, she was Rachel to me and little by little, through our work together and then through our years of monthly meetings, Rachel bloomed. And I believe that part of her, gave her the stamina to sustain herself during the quarantine.

In the first week of those stay-in-place orders, her calls to me were frequent. “I have to stay in my room,” she’d say. “They won’t even let me out to eat. They bring me my food in my room and I have to eat it here — in my room.”

My responses were more for fact finding so I could judge how best to support her. “Is everyone in their room,” I’d ask. “Do you see any others of the house?” “What does Helene (the house manager and her devoted advocate) have to say?”

Little by little, the story of her group home expanded. Rachel was only five of the twelve residents remaining in the house. The other seven had been moved to a rehab facility because they showed symptoms of the virus. One had been hospitalized and both managers had contracted a serious case and were being treated at their own homes.

By the second and third weeks, Rachel and I developed a routine. I expected her call and our back and forth would begin:

“So, Rach, how ya doin’ today? Had your breakfast yet?”


“What did you have?”

“I had pancakes again . . .”

The conversation would continue. I’d ask what staff she saw, who brought her food, what TV station she was watching, had she spoken to her older sister yet and tell her little vignettes about a woodpecker on a tree in my backyard, or about the weather forecast for the day. We didn’t talk about the hospitalizations being reported on the news or the rising death toll. She would talk about her plans to celebrate our belated April birthdays. “We’ll go to the Olive Garden when this is over in a month. I have a gift card my sister is holding for me.”

Well into a month her frustration took voice. “I can’t take this anymore, Barbara. I’m bored,” she’d say occasionally. I know she was. How could she not have been? “I want to go back to my program,” she’d say. The conversation would move to her interpretation of what the Governor would say in his daily briefings. “Did you hear Cuomo today?” she’d ask. “He says that when this peaks we’ll start going down, and then we can go out and I can go back to my program.”

“Yes, Rachel,” I’d say, more than once. “That will be wonderful won’t it, but you know that we’ll have to get permission from the program and the house.”

“I know,” she’d say, “and I know what I’m going to wear – my capris and a new shirt I got from my niece Ilana for my birthday.”

As the days and weeks passed, we became bonded to Governor Andrew Cuomo. We spoke of him as if he spoke directly to us each day. He was the reporter and he was the truth. Rachel’s life depended on it. It would be him and his reports of escalation and decrease in a mixture of both good and bad news that held her fate. The 10:00 am calls from Rachel would begin with, “Did you hear Cuomo yet?” although we’d begun to clock when he recorded and knew he wouldn’t be on till 11:00 am or later. Rachel’s assessment of and response to the Covid virus became more nuanced. We discussed cause and effect in more detail. “Maybe the numbers are going to peak today,” she’d say “and then we’ll begin to open and I can go back to my program.”

“Well Rachel, peaking would be great but I understood that there has to be a big slowing down after that, but we’ll see, right?”

“That’s right, Barbara,” she’d agree. “Maybe I can go back in June and then we can go out in – maybe the third Thursday for our birthdays and I’m treating.”

BJ, Headshot, 1.30.12

Author Rachel Holtzman is a frequent contributor to the Mountain News. Picture provided by Ms. Holtzman.

This entry was posted in Barbara Jean Heller, Covid-19, Rachel Holtzman. Bookmark the permalink.

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