I visit my dad in Westchester so we can go shopping at the Westchester Mall to pick up some new clothes for him. During the car ride, he had an occasional cough. Unbeknownst to both of us, he was falling ill with COVID-19.
My dad has become pretty sick with fever and chills. The next day he tested positive for the virus and our lives were altered permanently. The next couple of days into the course of the virus he began to feel better telling his friends he’d be able to golf with them in a couple of weeks, however, soon the malaise overcame him. He could barely eat or leave the couch.
Twelve days in on March 21, his oxygen levels fell and he was hospitalized soon after, but luckily avoided the path to a ventilator.
He improved gradually and was discharged from the hospital a week later on March 27th. I went back to our family home in Westchester to help care for him. He was weakened by the virus, had lost 20 pounds over the 2 weeks, and remained very fatigued. We socially distanced from one another wearing a mask when we were in close proximity. We ended up spending many hours together everyday streaming shows like Peaky Blinders, but also discussing how we could share his personal travails with COVID, as a physician, with the world.
He ended up writing a fantastic piece sharing his story. What made my dad unique is that he is the Chair of Pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of Northwell Health and how he fell severely ill with COVID-19. It was a combination that we felt anyone would be curious about.
I knew it was time to seize the moment and to help my dad share his story. He ended up writing a beautiful piece that he thought of while in his hospital room. The news cycle at the time was everything-COVID.
I decided to set out and have my dad published in The New York Times op-ed section. I knew that it would be nearly impossible by just cold emailing email@example.com
Instead, I emailed NYT writers who covered the coronavirus and shared my dad’s written op-ed. I carefully curated the subject line and pitch. We received a few hits saying to apply to the op-ed section directly, with one saying that they would be interested in potentially covering it in the Science section. After one of the writers recommended I apply directly and telling her that I did, she was kind enough to make an intro to the editor of the op-ed section. I was CC’d on the email and nervously awaited his review of the piece. A few days later I got the email. They said YES. That moment was life-changing; my dad and I were screaming. He was going to be able to share his story with the world.
One of the editors called my dad directly to edit and clean up the piece; three days later it was officially in the The New York Times.
The tweets, the emails, the calls were tremendous. There was so much love, but there were also random people around the world sharing their story with him, letting my dad know that it’s giving them hope that they too would make it through this disease.
The press frenzy began. Hit after hit.
The day my dad came home from the hospital I had him pose with his oxygen tank with his arms in the air celebrating life. I asked him if I could share it on Facebook. Unfortunately, it was a hard no. So I decided to share it on Reddit. They were just strangers anyway. I walked downstairs and saw the post hit a few 100 upvotes in the first few minutes. I then went to my computer and started working. I got a frantic call from my brother and he said “ Dad’s on the front page of Reddit.” It didn’t process. I quickly pulled up Reddit and there he was. In his goofy celebration. We made it. I told my dad and he didn’t even know what the front page of Reddit meant. I said it’s like a NY Times op-ed but now everyone in the world can see it. It didn’t register with him until he started getting calls from his colleagues that their kids saw dad on the front page since it called out Northwell health.
From there, I decided to double down and do a Reddit AMA. The questions came in fast and I typed while my dad dictated the answers.
As coronavirus began to spread to children, my dad’s hospital (Cohen Children’s Medical Center) admitted the most children with the virus, and then with the post-infectious inflammatory disease MIS-C. Now my dad had healed and was helping treat his patients and supporting his staff, while feverishly writing manuscripts for the medical journals. At that point, a major focus of the news cycle was dealing with children. No parent wants to see their child in the hospital from this confusing disease. I recommended that we hit every major outlet again, but this time from the angle of treating children with the virus. It worked! My dad made it back on GMA, including Newsday, and USA Today.
In the fall, in preparation for the school year, there was much debate as to whether school should reopen. Given that my dad’s pediatrics department is so tied into the local school systems, I knew this was another opportunity for him to weigh-in. I targeted the major publications and landed The Washington Post and again in one week.
So looking back, This was a long and tedious period, however, we found the silver linings. Obviously, I’m glad my dad made it out safely on the other side. Living with him for 3 months during the beginning of the pandemic was an experience like no other. We had the chance to bond, stream new shows and watch movies, and get to know each other at a deeper level than we ever had before.
Originally published at https://zachschleien.com on January 11, 2021.