About six months after having a near-death experience with COVID-19, back in the coronavirus’s first wave, Michael Flor was recovering strongly, and was surrounded by family and friends. But he started feeling a tug of emptiness.
“I realized I just wanted to connect with other people who had had COVID,” Flor, of West Seattle, says.
“I couldn’t believe the reaction,” Flor, 71, says. “It all came pouring out — out of me and out of them. I think there’s millions of people out there who are still dealing with this, and they don’t necessarily have an outlet right now. There’s no closure.”
Ending a pandemic is not something we’ve done before, not in a century anyway. For many it’s proving not as simple as getting your shots and taking off your mask.
“The pandemic’s mental wounds are still wide open,” The Atlantic magazine headlined an article this past week. It was about post-pandemic trauma — how the “understandable societal desire to move past the pandemic” may, at the same time, be alienating to people who are still struggling with the disease, or unresolved grief about loss.
Flor is seeing this firsthand. He’s become a sort of unofficial COVID guide and counselor to dozens of strangers he’s met online. He talks them through medical situations and sympathizes with how challenging it all is. He’s found that for something that’s been the world’s top news story for more than a year, to the point that everybody’s seemingly sick of hearing about it, there remains a space where people desperately need to talk.
“I think some people are feeling left out or forgotten a little bit,” he says. “The pain of all this hasn’t really been addressed.”
Yousef Shulman can relate. His uncle, Steve Shulman of Seattle, was roughly the 250th person to die from COVID-19 in the United States, back in March 2020. But 589,000 deaths later, the family still hasn’t been able to gather for traditional Jewish mourning rituals.
“It’s been really difficult for people,” Yousef says. “COVID was like a blur right from the beginning, one that keeps going. People need something to grab onto.”
This weekend they are unveiling Shulman’s gravestone marker, in a ceremony for several dozen family members in person along with a backup on Zoom.
“Every time I hear the number of deaths reported, I say to myself, ‘I know how you feel,’ ” says Yousef, who runs the family’s market in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood. “It’s emotional disruption, a lot of unprocessed grief, in millions of people’s lives.”
This disconnection has been the unique thing about this disaster, repeated countless times across the months. When Steve Shulman was in the hospital a year ago March, nobody could go see him.
“I spoke to him on the phone, before they put him on a ventilator, and he said, ‘Have you talked to the rabbi?’ ” Yousef says. “He was scared. He was alone and he knew he might not make it. I think about that every day.”
The pandemic has become so politicized that many people are reluctant to broach the subject. The news also has shifted away from chronicling the disease aspect of the pandemic, though 600 per day still are dying from it.
Flor has begun proposing in-person COVID survivor meetups as a way around this sense of being marooned. He also has gone back to Swedish Issaquah to thank the doctors and nurses, many of whom he never knew because he was unconscious for much of his time there.
“We’re First Wave survivors,” one man told him on the Survivor Corps site, after hearing Flor’s story of coming back from the dead.
“Kindred souls,” Flor says.
Flor became briefly famous a year ago when this column featured the $1.1 million price tag for his treatment. He’s no longer the most expensive COVID patient — one man in New York later had $1.9 million in charges submitted to insurance. But at the time, Flor’s story appeared everywhere, from People magazine to the “Today” show to El Pais in Madrid. He was interviewed by news stations in Brazil and France, and told his tale, by video, to a congressional hearing about the high costs of health care.
“The cost of my survival was more interesting to people than my survival,” he jokes.
On his trip through the media circus, he noticed something unexpected: He needed it. There’s something about the isolating force of this pandemic that’s unresolved and has got to come out.
“I didn’t know it, but I had to talk about it,” he says. “Looking back, I found that talking to all you in the media was therapeutic.”
Now that’s a new one, the press as therapists. It shows, though, that even as the disease aspect of this pandemic is hopefully winding down, the story of it — the quest for people to process what happened to them — may only be beginning.