When Oxford City Councilor Chantel Raghu voted in favor of reinstating a city-wide mask mandate last Monday, she had a lot on her mind.
Raghu’s father was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the beginning of August, but she didn’t immediately return to Texas to care for him.
Raghu’s dad, 77, is an allergist by profession. When he became eligible for a vaccine last spring, he chose Johnson & Johnson over Pfizer or Moderna, which are the first approved vaccines to rely on mRNA and require two shots instead of one.
For the first week after his diagnosis, Raghu’s dad continued to see patients remotely while quarantining in his bedroom. Raghu talked with him on the phone. He was tired, and he couldn’t shake his cough, but it didn’t seem severe.
As a child, Raghu never heard her dad say he was unwell. She never had to visit him or her mother in the hospital. She texted and called him all week. He said he was fine.
But on Aug. 6, he went to the emergency room.
His condition had worsened, but his oxygen levels were still at 95% – not low enough for serious concern. He asked for monoclonal antibody therapy, a treatment that uses mass-produced antibodies to target the spike proteins of the virus. The hospital didn’t have it available and sent him home.
Just 36 hours later, Raghu got another call.
Her father was back in the hospital.
“I’m gonna come home right now,” Raghu told her dad.
“No, no, I’m going to be okay,” he countered. “I don’t want you to get exposed.”
But Raghu had made up her mind.
Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter
“I don’t feel comfortable being so far away if you’re in the hospital and something were to go wrong,” she said.
She landed in Texas the next day.
On Raghu’s way to the hospital, she purchased two cards, one for her dad and another for the nurses and doctors taking care of him. She also made a stop at Great American Cookies in Music City Mall.
When she got to the hospital, Raghu passed the cards and cookies to the healthcare workers, but she didn’t go in to see her bedridden father. He was receiving supplemental oxygen, and they decided it would be safer if they didn’t meet face-to-face.
After visiting the hospital, Raghu went to her hotel. She’d decided not to stay with her mom, who was unvaccinated. Raghu’s brother, also unvaccinated, was in the area, too, but it wasn’t a family reunion.
Getting together could mean all four of them coming down with COVID-19 and another family member ending up in the hospital.
Days passed. Raghu called her dad often. He was too weak to type out text messages.
Raghu was driving one day while the two were talking over the phone. Her dad started giving instructions on what to do when he was gone.
She stopped the car.
“Dad,” she asked, “are you dying?”
It was a conversation the pair had never had before, what her life might be like once he died.
After eight days, Raghu’s dad left the hospital on Aug. 14. He brought with him supplemental oxygen but left behind the worst of his ordeal.
The next night, he rushed his wife to the hospital.
Raghu’s mom had been building up a cough over the past week and told Raghu she was feeling weak, but she didn’t want to get tested. Her condition became critical when her husband came home, though.
Before he took her to the hospital, they had to share his oxygen.
When Raghu got back to the hospital, it was the first time she saw her dad in-person since arriving a week before.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked her mom. “Do you want me to sign you up for a clinical trial?”
Raghu’s mom, who weeks ago had been too skeptical to get vaccinated, said yes to a clinical trial to treat her worsening condition. Raghu watched as what had been a distant possibility suddenly became real to her mother.
She might die.
There weren’t any clinical trials within five hours. Raghu’s mom suffered as her lungs struggled to pull in enough oxygen to survive. Her condition was more critical than her husband’s.
But Raghu had already spent two weeks in Texas. She had to come back to Oxford, where she serves as a city councilor in addition to her job as a veterinarian.
Once back in Oxford, Raghu voted to pass a mask mandate for the city. She knew it would be an unpopular decision, but she was angry.
Angry at Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whose policies surrounding the pandemic she held responsible for landing both her parents in a crowded ICU.
Angry at the news outlets and Facebook friends who told her mom the vaccine was too risky and she would be okay without it.
Angry at people in positions of power who could act to change the course of the pandemic and save lives yet actively chose not to.
So Raghu voted to pass the mandate.
Six days after being admitted to the hospital, Raghu’s mom returned home. Both her parents survived their ordeal. Not everyone does, though, and they’re both still weak.
Raghu doesn’t know what the long-term effects of their illness will be, but for now, they’re taking it day by day. She may call Oxford home, but if her parents take a turn for the worse again, she’ll be back in Texas to see it through with them.