By Gwen McKinney
Survival came with a set of non-negotiable requirements. First, calm her racing brain clamoring with a thousand ‘to dos.’ Then abandon the 24/7 news cycle and its relentless loop of Trump lunacy. Power down social media: cease texting, tweeting, telephoning and emailing. Log-off Zoom. Switch to the Cartoon Network.
That prescription was essential for Melanie Campbell who spent most of September in the ICU battling COVID-19, literally fighting for oxygen and against the ticking death toll disproportionately taking Black lives.
The quest was to eke out life in the midst of incredible death, today amounting to more than one percent of the American population.
“It’s hard to wrap my mind around the magnitude of the COVID devastation,” remarked Campbell, CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “So many lives have been forever altered.”
For someone on perpetual overdrive, powering down wasn’t easy. “I was stressed; thinking about my family, who some of which depend on me to help them survive these challenging economic times. I was worried about work, the election, the commitments, an overflowing plate.”
These insights were prodded from a woman who rarely talks about herself, mostly speaking about the “small c” coalition she has led for decades. “I didn’t realize how bad it was; all the anxiety, the stressors I was holding up in my body.”
And this gave the murderous virus soil to invade and conquer. Between each struggle for breath there was the struggle for life, she remembers. “I was fighting. And I had a big circle of prayer warriors who were key to my healing, along with doctors, nurses and so many other front line hospital workers.”
Rewind to the long Labor Day weekend when Campbell and her nephew had taken a seven-hour drive to a funeral for an elderly aunt. The service and burial were followed by an outdoor fish fry for dozens of family and close friends – where they believe they contracted the virus.
The drive back to the DC Area was difficult. Both she and her nephew were masked up but consumed in fatigue. The next day Campbell slept endlessly. She awoke still fatigued with chills, a fever and the certainty that something was wrong.
She drove herself to a hospital emergency room. Although testing verified that she was COVID-positive, Campbell was sent home, urged to quarantine and tough out the pneumonia diagnosis with Tylenol and over-the-counter cough medicine. The following day, she awoke fighting to breathe, and had to rush back to the ER in an ambulance. All totaled, she spent three weeks in the Intensive Care Unit.
Campbell ultimately triumphed, returning to what she has done for dozens of election cycles, joining legions of Black women activists to turnout historic numbers in the 2020 Presidential Election.
Today her overarching message: Black Lives Must Matter in the healthcare system. “Everyone must do everything possible to not get the Coronavirus.” She emphasized that health disparities, even with good health insurance, deliver less than quality care for Black folks.
Counting eight relatives who have been infected between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, Campbell emphasizes that loved ones are often the first line of infection. While all her family members are on the mend, Campbell cautions that it takes only one asymptomatic carrier to infect households and devastate families and communities.
The Atlantic Group has tracked COVID since the start of the pandemic, highlighting the grim descent into a surging spread.
With so much about COVID-19 still unknown, Campbell says she awaits the vaccine. Even if she’s developed antibodies from her own infection as a protective shield, a shot in the arm can’t hurt.
Campbell’s other takeaway cautions.
- Get tested as soon as you suspect you’ve contracted the virus (Testing sites can be identified by zip code and are no charge, even if you lack health insurance).
- Time is not your friend. Act quickly and demand medical attention immediately.
- Enlist an advocate to demand the best possible quality care and treatment; ensure that the health system does not ignore, undermanage or turn you away.
- The cruel vagaries of COVID are random and unpredictable. There is no one-size-fits-all prognosis. You can be healthy with no symptoms today and tomorrow in a fight for your life.
Nurtured and mentored by Civil Rights giants, Melanie Campbell whipped those lessons with grit and courage to lead the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.