Thursday, December 2News That Matters

Heading Home for the Vaccine: One Expat’s Trans-Atlantic Journey

I should mention that Covid is not my family’s first rodeo in terms of social distancing and extreme health-related stress. In 2011, our twins were born at just 23 weeks gestation, weighing 1.5 pounds each and requiring ventilators for about six weeks. We spent their first year isolating in Maplewood, N.J., awash in sanitizer, with pulse oximeters hanging from our necks, masking when needed and keeping them — and ourselves — out of circulation until their lungs had recovered from the damage caused by the ventilators before getting exposed to the typical childhood respiratory infections.

The experience taught us a lot about tolerating limitations and making the most of every easy moment that we could, so by July 2020, with daily Covid infection rates low, we were looking for pandemic silver linings. We loaded Flecha, our 5-month old Covid puppy, and ourselves into our van and zigzagged across Spain — from Cádiz at the southernmost tip to Asturias on the northern coast.

One place we didn’t plan to go last summer was the United States, by then the world leader in Covid cases and where outbreaks in Sun Belt states like Florida and Texas forever crushed the fantasy that the virus would disappear in warm weather.

My parents, who live in New Jersey, are in their late 80s and my children under 10, so we try to bring them together often, and we kept optimistically booking tickets last year in case the pandemic suddenly abated. But as international restrictions took hold, all of those flights were eventually canceled by the airline.

In the meantime, many friends in Spain had gotten sick, but thankfully most recovered. Then in early August, we lost a wonderfully gregarious friend who, at 52, was somehow gone just nine days after his diagnosis. A couple of similarly startling deaths followed and it was like the music stopped — we reverted almost to lockdown protocols, which was maybe a good thing since autumn brought a new wave of infections that has barely ebbed since.

From the outset my greatest fear was that my husband and I, who both have underlying health issues, would get seriously ill at the same time, with no relatives in Madrid to care for our kids. Thus we’ve been vigilant — only meeting people outdoors and doing lots of home testing — an area where Spain is way ahead of the United States.

All of this was in the background at dinner one night in early March when we wondered if it was time to cancel our tickets to New York for spring break at the end of that month. The United States was then still registering massive daily infections, but also setting daily records for vaccines administered.