Flying for surgery during the pandemic

Like most with ME, I have worked pretty hard not to get COVID. My goal was to keep my family and me safe until the vaccines arrived, knowing the pandemic is not over, and we are still at some risk while vaccinated. Even with my doomsday mentality, I never could have guessed I would be in the position I find myself: preparing to get on an airplane during the escalating delta variant surge.

I made my plans for surgery when COVID cases were at an all-time low, and it looked like we were turning the corner on the pandemic, enough so that I could contemplate flying to NY for SFT surgery. I even saved an email from Dr. Bolognese’s office saying that I didn’t need to get a COVID test when I arrived in NY as long as I had my vaccine card. That policy quickly changed with the arrival of the delta variant.

I am amazed how my goalposts have moved: I have gone from doing everything to avoid COVID to only caring about making it to my surgery free of the virus. Getting COVID feels like an inevitability at this point – just not before I get my COVID test at the hospital next week, please! I am vaccinated, but I have countless friends and friends of friends who have had breakthrough infections, some severe enough to be hospitalized.

April 12: This Day in Sci-Fi History -SYFY Wire
My cattle dog and I are ready for the apocalypse.

My life has become increasingly consumed with figuring out how to dodge the virus in the meantime. I feel like Mad Max (I even have a cattle dog!) navigating societal collapse, especially with the toxic air from fires blanketing our world as the backdrop.

After getting my surgical clearance, I have begun to strategize in earnest for my trip to NY. My contingency planning is now in N-dimensional hyperspace. Hopefully, my neuroses will benefit others who are hand-wringing their way through traveling for medical care.

Pay the extra for maximum flexibility

Everything seems to cost more as a sick person, and travel plans during the pandemic are no exception. I had to purchase the most flexible (and expensive) tickets for myself and my caregivers – my husband for the first leg and my dearest friend dating back to 2nd grade for the second leg. I feel like I deserve an honorary degree in logistics after booking all of those flights! Consider getting tickets that you can change up to the last minute. Note: I went into this thinking that I could get re-fundable tickets – they don’t seem to exist. Most airlines only provide vouchers (I had to book with three of them, each with the same policy). I had to change my tickets today (more on that below) and was grateful I made the wise choice to get flexible tickets.

Similarly, I can cancel our hotel and car rental within 24 hrs of arrival if I need to.

Testing, testing

It dawned on me that I could still recover the losses from my trip if I test positive for COVID before leaving. Rather than waiting until I arrive, I will test 72 hours before departing. This approach will give me time to get my results and cancel my trip if my husband or I test positive. I will also pick up some home COVID tests within 24 hrs of flying – when I can still pull the plug on the trip if I test negative the day before my flight.

My friend who will be flying in from Michigan will also test 72 hrs before she departs. If she tests positive, she can cancel her trip.

This raises another vulnerability in my plans: I can do everything not to get COVID, but I cannot control what happens to others helping me with my plan. I am in a big ecosystem.

My son just went back to high school today – after we had him in an online academy for the past year and a half so he would be safe (he also has his health issues). We are in a place where the pandemic is highly politicized, with our school board leading the charge. What if my son brings COVID home? We have protocols in place – I wear a KN95 inside my home now and stay 10 feet away from my non-dog family members. My son is kind and conscientious, but he is 16, after all. I have had a lot of exposure this past week – having to see my doctor five times for surgery sign-off, and several other situations were not ideal.

If my husband gets sick, I have to pull the plug. My brother kindly offered to drive to the hospital from Michigan to pick up the rear if my friend gets sick. I would be able to fly home alone – I think. I have become facile with uncertainty.

Then I start to count the number of airports involved and wonder if it is even ethical to ask my friend to fly through nine airports for me. Is this whole plan sheer madness? Yes.

Minimize the number of flights and build in extra time for travel

In addition to avoiding airports, I am facing another pressing issue: having one of my flights canceled. Two weeks ago, my brother told me how my nephew had been stranded in Atlanta for a few days on his way back to Detroit on Delta – not exactly small airports and big hubs for Delta. Yesterday I read an article in the Washington Post about how to deal with this problem. The bottom line is that there is no good way to avoid it, and most airlines notify you moments before your flight is scheduled to leave. Because I did not leave any additional wiggle room on time, a canceled flight at the last minute would most likely result in me having to cancel my surgery.

I was a bit of an idiot and booked my flight to arrive late on the night before my first pre-surgery appointments. I was freaking out about hemorrhaging money and was being a cheapskate, not wanting to stay an unnecessary night at the hotel. Again, this is the cost of being sick and traveling during a time of great uncertainty. I thought that if the Reno-San Francisco (SFO) flight on Spirit Airlines got canceled (they canceled 60% of flights last week), we would miss our SFO-JFK flight. I nearly panicked at the thought. Thanks to those flexible tickets I purchased, I canceled the Reno-SFO legs of the journey, and we will drive to SFO instead.

The other benefit of this new flight plan is minimizing the time I spend in airports. I haven’t thought about what it will be like to land at JFK late at night – a daunting thought. I hear there is a lot of construction and arrivals are a nightmare.

Suit up and other flying tips

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As part of my updated Mad Max attire, I bought a face shield like a welding helmet. I have lots of KN95s, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and gloves (come in handy in some cases). I have a nifty tray table cover.

I asked about tips on flying and got some excellent advice. My friend reminded me not to eat or drink while on the plane. I don’t think I’ll survive a 5 hr flight without drinking, so I will figure out some contraption with straws through my mask. I’ll try to eat a calorie-dense meal before I board (another bonus about driving to SFO – we can get something along the way and eat in the car).

Study: Researchers Identify COVID-19 Reinfection Case in Nevada

My doctor had the best advice of all – something I would never have thought about. He advised me to be the last person to board the plane, or near the last. Usually, I get on before everyone else. I would have done this while in autopilot mode. If you stop and think about it for two seconds, the advice makes good sense: by boarding at the end, you can avoid sitting on the plane for 30 minutes while everyone is milling (and breathing) past you and during a period when the plane doesn’t have it’s complete air filtration system on. It is like being dropped into a petri dish just inoculated with your favorite microbe. I will be boarding last.

I am standing on the edge of the unknown…trying to face it with excitement.

2 thoughts on “Flying for surgery during the pandemic

  1. I dove into a research rabbit hole (shocker) about airline travel last year and here’s what I came up with:
    There’s a study about window seats being best, but my take away was that they were best because people sitting in window seats are more apt to stay put (also slightly further away, distance-wise, from those walking by in the aisle). The goal is to sit where the fewest people walk past you. First/business class would be best, obviously. Boarding last would make most sense, but if you need to board first for some reason, sit in the back of the plane so the rest of the passengers aren’t walking past you. The air doesn’t travel throughout the length of the plane, but from the ceiling down. I told my Mum: sit where you will have the fewest people walking past you (last one on at the front of the plane, first one off) and stay put and try not to go to the loo.

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  2. My dear friend, I wonder if we were cut from the same cloth before our health changed or if we developed the same strategies only as a result. I’m sorry that on top of feeling so unwell you must run this gauntlet of plans and back-ups! I will visualize all going well, as planned or better, along the way. I also think that letting all of the carriers know of your situation can help them to help you. I travel with letters from my doctors so that I can show them to airline personnel if need be. People have been most kind any time I’ve had to do that. I’m not sure if you’re bringing your own wheelchair, but if not be sure to reserved those for each leg of the trip too.

    Holding you and your team in my highest thoughts, prayers, meditations!

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