After a Difficult Year, Reflections from Princeton Pandemic Survivors

Everyone has been affected in some way by the pandemic. Comparatively speaking, Princeton has been spared the worst, but each one of us has a story. What has COVID-19 done to those that were sickened by it? How has it affected the loved ones of those that lost their lives to it? To understand what it has been like for your neighbor, your co-worker and those you do not know, we share the reflections of four Princeton-area residents.

Hanan and Helaine Isaacs

Hanan and Helaine Isaacs have been married for over 28 years. He has resided in Princeton for 40 years, Helaine for 30. They have 2 sons, Stuart, 27, and Josh, 24, both young businessmen. They also have a healthy cockapoo dog named Dusty, who is now 15 1/2 years old. A 42-year practitioner, Hanan is a Supreme Court of New Jersey Certified Family Law Specialist and a senior mediator, arbitrator, and trial lawyer with Kingston Law Group. Helaine originally worked in human resources but has spent the past 12 years doing non-profit event planning and fundraising. She currently fundraises for JFCS of Greater Mercer County.

“Hanan’s Covid-19 story”

Although I always thought of myself as immortal, I have suffered with allergies and asthma since childhood. When I am healthy, no problem. When things start to go wrong, problem.

In February 2020, just a year ago, Helaine and I got word that an event we attended in Westchester County, NY, may have had a guest later diagnosed with COVID-19, an illness just gaining our awareness as a major threat.

We quarantined voluntarily at home and shortly after got the “all clear” from NY. However, I was already feeling unwell. I had chills, brain fog, I was exhausted and sleeping 20 hours a day. I stayed out of work out of concern for my staff. I called different personal physicians for advice. No one could tell me what to do. Princeton residents could not get testing easily. One of my doctors pushed me to get a prescription for a COVID-19 test at Penn Medicine Princeton Health in Plainsboro, and my primary care physician wrote it for me. I got the test but learned it would take a week to get the results. Meanwhile, my condition was worsening. I had shortness of breath on top of the other symptoms. Eventually, my allergist, an angel of mercy, pushed me to go to the Penn Medicine ER — without a test result. Helaine dropped me off in a parking lot outside the ER, where I sat on the curb on a freezing cold March night, waiting for medical attention. It was an out of body experience. Everyone in the parking lot wore PPE, which I had never seen before. Eventually, based on my stated symptoms, they took me into the heated ER for a further workup.

Based on my lab work, they must have figured out I had a serious breathing problem secondary to suspected COVID-19 — and admitted me. I was one of the first COVID-19 patients at the facility.

I spent a week being treated for pneumonia. While I never once considered my illness a mortal threat, Helaine was extremely worried about me. She was not allowed to visit, which was tough for both of us. The staff was a mix of sweet and salty nurses, all of them in PPE gear. I appreciated all of them. After two days in the hospital, my COVID-19 test came back positive. I knew I was in the right place for what I had. I did not require a ventilator, thankfully. While I have recovered fully from my illness and had zero residual effects: in the hospital and for about two weeks after, I had profound brain fog. It was hard to put words together in a sentence and make myself understood. Those effects went away with time.

The real shocker occurred after I got out. My law practice, Kingston Law Group, had shut its doors, our staff were scattered to the winds, there appeared to be no new business prospects, no way to collect funds due us, federal and state courts in New Jersey were shut, and I truly suspected we could not survive as a going concern. One of my professional consultants, then another, strongly urged me to start producing webinars in our practice areas, family law and employment law. I thought they were nuts: what would I say, who would be watching? Turns out they were absolutely right. We had to prepare for the resumption of the practice, no matter how dire things looked at the time. I also got thrown immediately into filing for federal funding to keep the business afloat, which actually worked. I could bring staff back to work and pay our rent, which was the point of the exercise. The Mercer area business, banking, and professional communities were incredibly helpful, including the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce. We could not have recovered our business without them — and I am aware that too many businesses could not recover. I consider myself doubly lucky for having survived COVID-19 physically and financially.

In May of 2020, two months after my recovery, my 95-year-old mother, Reeva, contracted COVID-19 in her assisted living facility in Princeton. Sadly, she could not overcome the illness and died within a week. We buried her on Mother’s Day.

One year later, taking nothing for granted, my health is fine, and our law practice has largely recovered. We are making plans for business growth and exploring merger options.

In profound ways, personally and professionally, nothing has been left untouched by the pandemic. A lot of the changes will be permanent and some of them are quite welcome. At the same time, some of what we had and took for granted is gone, perhaps never to return. I think of myself as stronger for my personal and professional ordeals, certainly forced to be more flexible, and hopefully more resilient. I am thrilled about the vaccine and the hope it brings to our society and world. I also am more aware of how fragile our lives are and how much we need to count on family, friends, and community for our strength and support. These are huge lessons I want always to remember — and hope never to forget.

“Helaine’s Covid-19 story”

In late March, Hanan was home sick and in bed exhausted with chills and aches for several days. COVID-19 tests were largely unavailable. I finally went with him to his internist who arranged for him to be tested and advised that he quarantine at home. Two days later, when he developed a fever, we called his allergist who told me to take him to the emergency room at Penn Medicine, even though we hadn’t received his test results. I packed a toothbrush and toothpaste with me, naively thinking I would spend the night in some remote waiting room or lobby. You can only imagine my shock when the nurse told me I wasn’t allowed in the building and I left Hanan there in their care. Not being able to see or speak to him and not knowing how he was doing were the worst parts. I can’t say enough good things about the nursing staff and doctors who cared for Hanan. They were my lifeline. Finding the right balance of calling often enough to obtain information but not becoming a nuisance and allowing them to do their work was a challenge.

I remember two frightening incidents.

One night, I left several messages for the nursing staff. My last message was that I was going to bed and they didn’t need to call that night. I woke to a call after midnight and I feared the worst. The nurse called to tell me that Hanan just had an episode where he was not receiving enough oxygen through the nasal canula and his oxygen levels dipped significantly. They gave him a different treatment that stabilized his breathing and at that point, he was doing fine. They just wanted me to know. I had missed the crisis and was thrilled that Hanan was out of the woods – for the moment – but couldn’t get back to sleep.

I could only speak to Hanan sporadically by phone. He was either exhausted and sleeping or when he was awake, he often experienced “brain fog.” Hanan is an attorney who makes his living by articulating his thoughts. Yet, when he was in the hospital, he couldn’t find words or connect his thoughts. Speaking to him on the phone was a frightening experience. One day Hanan called to say he was signing himself out AMA and his explanation made no sense. What I came to understand was that the alarm on his bed was set to the highest level. It went off every time he turned and a swarm of hospital staff would rush into his room to make sure he was all right. He was exhausted and this kept waking him up. This was easily remedied by lowering the sensitivity of the alarm on his bed but understanding the issue took a lot of work because I wasn’t at the hospital and at the time, Hanan wasn’t a reliable reporter of information.

I don’t think Hanan realized how sick he was, but I was afraid he was going to die. When I started to go down that black hole, I imagined Hanan recovering and coming back home. That image was helpful for me to hold onto. It was so early on in the pandemic and we knew much less then than we do now. The nursing staff were the ones who got me through – informing me of his status and offering words of encouragement. The entire experience put me in touch with a strong sense of gratitude – for the medical staff that cared for Hanan and for his recovery. In spite of it being a frightening experience, I am highly aware that we have much to be grateful for and that we are among the lucky ones because Hanan recovered completely.

Lanniece Hall

Lanniece Hall has lived with her family in Princeton for 15 years after completing OBGYN residency in Pennsylvania. She and her husband have two children in the Princeton Public School District. She has volunteered throughout the Princeton Community and most recently helped to start a NJ Nonprofit to help advocate for the rights of Black children in the Princeton Public School District called Princeton Parents for Black Children. She has been a member of Princeton Alliance Church for 11 years.

“Lanniece’s Covid-19 story”

To say this past year was difficult for Lanniece Hall is an understatement. On top of the pandemic fears, remote schooling, and isolation, it has been a year filled with more loss of life and sickness than any human should have to endure. From the end of March to the present, Lanniece and her husband Michael have mourned 7 deaths and three near misses. It was one, then another and another. She couldn’t go a week without learning someone else had died or was hospitalized.

“The reality of going through all this with kids at home, on remote learning! Trying to be a teacher, a parent and deal with your own grief and support your husband and the family was sometimes too much,” shared Lanniece.

When Michael’s grandmother died of COVID nearly a year ago, it was very early in the shutdown. Only five people were allowed at the funeral.

“No one was prepared, it was difficult to grieve socially distant or remote ” explains Lanniece. “Grandma was the first.”

Two weeks later, came the next loss when her father, who is a pastor, shared his associate pastor had died. Only 52 years old, it all happened within a week. Lanniece noted, “We’d initially gotten reports he was hospitalized from COVID, then on a ventilator, then improving, then he was dead.”

Still not out of April, Michael learned that his cousin’s husband, only in his 50s, caught COVID. He was sick and gone within days. On the same day of his passing, Michael was told his two college friends had succumbed to the virus, one a police officer, the other an engineer. Both black men in their 40s.

“The health inequities in America are so deep,” notes Lanniece, who is Black and a physician. “Unfortunately for Black people, even when you have access to care…Black people no matter what age are at higher risk for death. That’s the reality of American medicine.”

And it’s not just in America. Lanniece has a close friend in West Windsor with a cousin in Zimbabwe who lost a battle with COVID, one of the first deaths to occur there. And he was a highly educated businessman in his 30s.

Then May approached, still mourning the loss of so many in such a short time. Lanniece was informed of the passing of two people she’d treasured and looked up to, one a close family friend and another, who was her religious mentor. Though these two deaths were not due to COVID, it was just too much, too soon. Having to miss out on mourning together and the funerals added to the pain.

“All these emotions, you can’t even just grieve the loss because all the other emotions – now you’re concerned about the safety of those physically there trying to grieve and express love to the family,” adds Lanniece. “It totally messes up your mind.”

In August, Lanniece’s best friend tested positive for COVID. An internal medicine doctor who’d been on the frontline since day one, she ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung – and Lanniece couldn’t go be with her, to help her. In time, she got stronger and healthier, but it was trying. Then in January, COVID struck again. This time sickening Lanniece’s uncle, her mother’s brother, who developed COVID pneumonia. Improper treatment led to him being hospitalized then ultimately, he went home on oxygen. Her cousin, her uncle’s daughter, also contracted COVID during this same time, but fortunately did not require hospitalization.

“That was really hard, I was playing in my mind what I’ll do if he dies. Oh my gosh! And he’s the patriarch of the family. But he’s doing great now, so thank goodness.”

Last month, Lanniece and Michael learned of yet another death, as Michael’s close friend’s father succumbed to COVID.

“Because I’m the pastor’s daughter, I hear about people dying all the time,” Lanniece explains. “My mom and dad are always telling me about someone who has passed from natural causes.  It’s not the same as COVID deaths from 40-year-olds and having my best friend and uncle in the hospital with COVID.”

While Lanniece and Michael are thankful their immediate family has been spared, it’s been a year-long journey they’d never wish on anyone. What got Lanniece through was her faith, which has deepened tremendously. Caring for her uncle virtually created a closeness to him and her family that she’ll also forever be grateful for.

“Even in the process of all this pain, I’ve seen the beauty of humanity at the same time,” she adds.

Jill Constantine

Jill Constantine has been a Princeton resident for nearly 20 years. She is married and has 3 children, 24, 20 and 13 years-old, all who attended and thrived in Princeton public schools. She is a Senior Vice President at Mathematica, a policy research, analysis and consultant organization with headquarters in Princeton Junction, and 1,400 employees across the country. She’s enjoyed attending her children’s jazz performances (her older two) and sporting events (her youngest), in addition to reading, exercise, watching some of the cool shows she discovered during quarantine, and spending time with all of the amazing friends she has made in Princeton these past 20 years.

“Jill’s Covid-19 story”

My sister left our house on Friday, New Year’s Day and called me as soon as she got home. She was running a low-grade fever and had mild congestion. She was still hopeful it wasn’t COVID because she couldn’t imagine where she contracted it from since she does not go out into the world unmasked. She was tested two days later and was positive. Her symptoms remained mild, but persistent, and her husband and daughter tested positive the next day. We all felt fine with no symptoms, but I went for my rapid test on Sunday. I was also positive and within a few hours, developed a low-grade fever.

The next 10 days were some of the most stressful of the past year. My symptoms continued to be mild, a low-grade fever for about 48 hours, fatigue, and mild congestion. The physical effects of COVID were easily managed for me, a 56-year old, fit, white woman, but the psychological ones were not. Sleepless nights began as my head filled with worry and disaster scenarios. My adult son developed symptoms and tested positive Monday. My husband and two daughters went for rapid tests Tuesday and tested negative. “Please, God, let it stop here,“ my restless brain, reiterated. “My son and I will do fine, spare the others.”

By Thursday, my older daughter developed symptoms and tested positive and by Friday, my husband did too. Most of us lost our sense of smell and taste, but in my house, we were generally spared. We all rebounded quickly, feeling more like ourselves within two weeks.  While all seems to have ended well, we experienced costs that are hard to quantify.

My 13-year old never contracted COVID (we know for sure, she was tested again, and recently tested for antibodies, she has none). However, she remained fully isolated from everyone in our house for two weeks, and then remained in the house for the rest of January to ensure she didn’t contract COVID. She missed in-person school, outdoor soccer practice, and outside visits with her friends. Followed by more time indoors due to February’s snowstorms and my resilient, conscientious, brilliant child, who managed hybrid learning just fine, began to come apart. Suddenly assignments were poorly completed or not completed. She needed support and structure unlike any other time in her life.

In my sister’s family, her fit, healthy, 65-year old husband struggled. After a week of persistently high fever and a cough, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, and was sent home to recover with steroids. Although his story has a good ending, it took him weeks to get his strength back, only began feeling himself about 8 weeks later. My husband still can’t fully taste or smell.

In addition to lingering and unknowable effects on my family, there have been other impacts. Last April, COVID tore through my father’s memory care facility in Princeton Junction infecting 28 residents, including my father, killing 13. While my father was spared death, the ongoing struggle with staffing and illness at his facility hastened his dementia and his physical decline.  He eventually contracted pneumonia and we had to move him to a more intensive care setting last fall. A setting we could not visit beforehand due to the pandemic. The quality of his life has been worsened by COVID, and there is nothing we can do about that.

So please, we are almost there. Wear the mask, don’t gather indoors. We suspect my sister was exposed during a physical therapy session despite wearing a mask. Given the more contagious variants of COVID, if you have to go indoors for services that require close contact, wear two masks. Don’t get it, it isn’t worth it.