COVID’s still around — and decisions about holiday travel are tough

For those living with chronic disabilities or immunocompromised, like myself and my dad, it is urgent to think twice about returning to “normal.”

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Travelers walk along the concourse at O’Hare airport’s Terminal 2, Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.

Travelers walk along the concourse at O’Hare Airport.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

Should I fly home for the holidays and risk infecting my 78-year-old immunocompromised father with COVID?

For many Americans, the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and life, including holiday travel, has resumed to normal. But for those living with chronic disabilities, it is urgent to think twice about returning to “normal.”

My father grew up as a Sansei, third-generation Okinawan sugar cane plantation worker in Hawaii, and went on to become a doctor. Six years ago, when he was newly retired, he developed cardiac sarcoidosis, went into heart failure, and ended up having a heart transplant at age 72.

Gifted this bonus time, he lives an active life going for daily walks with our mom in the Pacific Northwest. Immunosuppressed patients like my dad may not mount an immune response to the standard COVID vaccines, but I was able to visit my parents in-person this past summer because he became eligible for a bi-annual Evusheld shot, which provides pre-exposure prophylaxis protection against COVID.

Opinion bug


When I received the news my dad’s heart had begun to reject him, I was shocked.

I responded by eating my grief into numbness, with takeout Korean BBQ fried chicken, sides of kimchi, Japanese pickled daikon radish, extra spicy deboki washed down with Sapporo Premium beer. The next morning, I started checking airline prices and trying to coordinate travel dates to fly from Chicago, where I live, to Seattle, where my parents live.

I called my mom to ask if she wanted me to come home for the holidays. “How urgent is this? How much time do we have left?”

Heart failure, it turns out, can take years.

But it feels urgent, so I ask my younger brother, a Harvard University PhD health economist, to commiserate with me over more beer, but this time with a side of short rib cheese curd poutine at a neighborhood pub.

“I guess we got greedy, thinking there would always be a tomorrow,” he said. “What we don’t know is the rate of progression and if we can expect a steady decline or if he might take a sharp turn for the worse. So even if we can manage to see our parents at least twice a year in winter and summer break, that might give us eight more times to see Dad.”

This is a convincing argument for why I should drop everything and take my 17-year-old child back to see their grandparents. But there is the chance, based on a recent National Institutes of Health report, that the latest COVID variants might sneak past the protection of the Evusheld.

The possible four years of life for my dad could be robbed in an instant.

Here’s another caveat. I’m a year-and-a half out from active treatment for stage 1 invasive breast cancer and am now on a five-year course of hormone therapy.

I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, my immune system is back online, but I’m still struggling with the long-term side effects and must budget how many spoons of energy I can expend in a day. Traveling is especially taxing. I would need to quarantine and test myself before visiting my dad.

Is there even enough time off to make this worth it?

When my world was turned upside down due to my own cancer during the pandemic, I had to reevaluate things I took for granted as normal.

Is my desire to return to a normal in-person holiday an attempt to turn back time and deny both our chronic disabilities? Surely it can be enough to phone, Facetime, or Zoom home.

To be sure, many around the world face screen fatigue and nothing beats an in-person hug. I realize it is a privileged position to have access to health care, and be able to afford airline travel.

Certainly there are ways to remotely connect to create meaningful holiday memories that won’t exhaust or endanger fragile health. I could make a painting of something my dad appreciates in his daily life. I could use an old family photo as a mnemonic device and ask my dad to tell me a story.

For now, I’ll wait a bit to decide how I should gamble my today for a tomorrow that may not come. Yes, change is normal, but it can be difficult to reconcile.

Laura Kina is a Vincent de Paul Professor of Art at DePaul University, visual artist and co-author of War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art and Queering Contemporary Asian American Art. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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