Like many around the world, I sat, mesmerized by watching and hearing the devastating story told by a teenage girl and her father. It reminded me of an alarmingly growing number of families who have faced the horror of an unpredictable enemy. Instead of enjoying their golden years with each other, a long-married couple fell victim to it. It left their family bereft but determined to bring to the forefront the unnecessary loss and a desire to hold accountable an administration that ignores the truth and denies the science. I knew I needed to add my voice to theirs.
Dr. Arjun Kaji is a Radiologist who lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Maddelena Kaji is an articulate young woman, who with her father has been catapulted to notoriety for a reason that no one should ever have to have been. They mourn the loss and celebrate the lives of their parents/grandparents in a film called Maddie’s Grandparents: A Preventable COVID Tragedy.
You have joined a non-exclusive club that no one wants to be in, that of families who have lost loved ones to COVID. What is the range of emotions you go through on a daily basis?
Arjun: I suppose there are two overlapping groups of emotions. One is just the same feeling of loss and grief that anyone who loses both of their parents goes through. A universal experience. However, to have it happen so close together was something that is very hard to deal with. When my father passed, we immediately had to pivot to addressing my mother’s situation which included multiple medical, psychiatric and financial issues, so even now I don’t feel like I’ve given my father the appropriate amount of remembrance. When my mother passed, it became somewhat surreal and it is something that I’m still trying to process. Of course, the second group of emotions has to do with the cause – COVID in my father’s case. He had overcome so many other medical issues that would have conquered others, to see him pass from a communicable disease that was basically ignored by the administration fills me with vague anger on top of the grief.
Please share a bit about your parents/grandparents so readers can get a picture of who they were as people.
Maddie: My grandparents were the most beautiful, creative, sweet, tough, and strong people ever. My grandfather lived through his country’s fight for independence from Great Britain. He came here to help women and to provide care to people of all classes. As an OB/GYN, he encountered a lot of protesters and vandalism in his clinic, but my grandfather (in his classic way) waved his ring-covered hand in the air and said, “Oh, they’re just huffing and puffing out there!” because he felt a serious duty to provide fair and safe options for any patient that requested it. My grandmother was a very talented fine-arts artist. She was this wonderfully silly woman who, despite the effects of mental illness which plague a lot of Americans, did all she could to show that she loved us, even when it was difficult for her. She was very intelligent and pursued further education as a mom with three small children at home, going to school, and running the household at the same time. As an artist myself, I think of her all the time when I am sewing and drawing. They were both people of extreme importance to not just my family, but to every single family they had known. My grandfather brought thousands of babies into this world and my grandmother was an eccentric character who always seemed to touch everyone she met in a special way. They were my guidance throughout my childhood, lovable people that you always had fun with, my teachers, the figures I looked up to when thinking about my own future. I hope that they are proud of their little titu. I miss them more and more each day and it hurts knowing that I will never get them back.
Arjun: I outlined the broad brushes of my father’s life in his obituary and writing that was somewhat therapeutic. He was a dedicated physician who derived great satisfaction in working as an OBGYN and helping patients, delivering babies, and helping women become mothers. In modern parlance, he was what you could call a “workaholic” and managed a very busy practice, but he didn’t bring the stress of his work into the house. Family was very important to him. As the youngest of many children, he served as a cousin-uncle to many of his nieces and nephews in India, most of whom followed his path later in emigrating to the US. He opened our home to relatives many times when they needed help, and never asked for anything in return. He was a selfless, generous, and kind man, not just with his family but with everyone. One quality that everyone who knew him would comment on was his “unflappability” – faced with a problem or a setback or a bad situation he would never let it bother him. As an OBGYN in the 1980s, he was one of the few doctors who was willing to perform pregnancy terminations, and our house and his office were the source of constant protests. Rather than lose his temper, he endeavored to understand their point of view and engage with them. With all of that, he has a silly humorous side, which I saw more of when he was with my children. There was nothing too silly or goofy he wouldn’t do to amuse his grandchildren. By example, he taught us the value of hard work and education.
My mother was a highly intelligent, sharp woman who was something of a polymath and autodidact. She was a voracious reader when she was younger and had an amazing memory. Although she didn’t finish college before marrying my father, she later went back to nursing school while we were young and received excellent grades. She was an accomplished artist both with natural talent and by training and had a very sharp sense of humor. Growing up she was a very hands-on mother with regards to school functions, Halloween costumes, and doing things with her children.
Unfortunately, she suffered from many psychiatric and later medical issues in the last three decades of her life, and these problems came to dominate both her life and my father’s life. Despite these setbacks, they remained together and were devoted to each other no matter how it seemed to outside observers. After my father’s passing, we had her moved to Florida to be closer to more of her grandchildren, but unfortunately, the change and the loss of my father evidently was too much for her to bear.
Arjun, as a doctor, what have you learned about this disease? Have you treated patients who have contracted the virus?
As a physician, what I’ve learned about the virus is what most of us have learned over the past 8 months, at least those who are paying attention. This is a highly contagious virus that is especially deadly in those who have underlying medical conditions, those who are elderly, and apparently is more serious in those with higher BMI. This is in no way comparable to the seasonal flu besides the fact that it is a virus. On top of that, as time progresses, we are seeing more and more long-term effects in those who recover from the virus, including respiratory, cardiac, and nervous system issues.
As a radiologist working in a hospital, I daily see imaging studies on patients suffering from COVID, both presenting to the ER with the illness and being treated in the hospital. Of course, like other patients, people with COVID also need medical procedures performed, which we do not shy away from doing. However, to some extent, I am lucky in that I am not constantly exposed like ER physicians, ICU nurses, and many others.
As a respected member of the medical community, what guidance do you have to help prevent the spread?
This is both the easiest question and the most tragic because the steps we can take to prevent spread are simple yet are being ignored by so many. These are basic public health precepts. Avoid close contact with others via social distancing, prevent unknowing spread to others by distancing and wearing masks, and prevent passing of fomites and self-infection by washing hands frequently. We must do all of these things reliably until we have a combination of effective therapeutics and a reliable, safe vaccine.
Your family is what I call resilient thrivers and took this tragedy and turned it into something helpful for others by creating the movie Maddie’s Grandparents: A Preventable COVID Tragedy. Please talk about what it took to bare your feelings to the world as you made this film.
Maddie: I had previously spoken out, pushing for better guidelines and safety policies in my area, so I was very familiar with what kinds of backlash I could receive. I wasn’t really very nervous myself, but I didn’t want to have my dad face the same mean comments I had, so that aspect made me a little weary. And there were negative responses, of course: “Brainwashed know-nothing teenager.” One even person called the entire description of their deaths “Bull***t” which made me laugh because it’s just so utterly ridiculous to take the preachings of one dude so far that you are telling a grieving teenager she is a stupid idiot and her grandparents deserved to die just because the big tough man in the White House thinks it’s cool to deny science. As a young person, I am scared and I am disappointed in the behavior of these grown individuals who are supposed to be more wise than me (so they say).
Arjun: As Maddie says, it was her advocacy for safety that brought us to the attention of Brave New Films. It is absolutely not in my nature to participate in this kind of public exposure, so initially, I was a little uneasy and maybe even afraid. However, I reminded myself that this was something we could do to remind people COVID is not a political issue and people who are dying are not just statistics. On top of that, my mother was a child of the 1960s being a baby boomer, and had a strong sense of social justice, while my father’s career was based on caring for people. So I tried to keep that in mind while relating their story. That said, seeing the final product was hard as it meant seeing my father’s face and hearing his voice again which wasn’t easy then or now.
Maddie, you have joined a group of other outspoken young people who are making their voices heard about world events. How did you know you had to do something to make a difference for others?
After my grandfather died, I struggled a lot to not only process his death, but also to process the position of emotional isolation that I was consequently put in, and I am not referring to social distancing. Living in the south, the sentiment toward lockdown precautions and overall compliance with scientific guidelines is somewhat nonexistent. Now that my grandfather was dead of the very thing they loved to belittle and deny, it’s like my whole life, my whole perspective of the world was just thrown in the garbage. People literally told me to go f**k myself when I asked them to be a little more responsible and leave a crowded party- a very stark contrast to the “this has brought us closer together” and the “we will fight this off as a team” message that some Americans love to preach.
But I realized that these people didn’t deserve to die, no matter how cruelly they treated me, and no matter how much they disrespected my dead family. Nobody deserves to die from COVID-19 just because they were unfortunate enough to believe our president. After all, you’re supposed to be able to trust that the president isn’t actively trying to kill you, right? So to answer your question, I knew I had to do something because if I did nothing, people could die. People could actually die if I didn’t do anything because Governor Ron Desantis was (and still is) welcoming a hurricane of death to my state with open arms.
I created a student activist coalition called Students for Safe Schools in August to demand proper funding and guidelines be made to allow my teachers and peers to go back to school without fearing for their lives. I also organized a statewide student walkout on September 4th which garnered up a lot of youth support.
You are an articulate speaker. Was that always so for you?
Maddie: I am actually an extremely shy person. My strength comes in my ability to write- and write I did! My op-ed “I miss my granddad and I don’t want my friends to die too” racked up a lot of traction online and across Florida. Speaking wasn’t previously my strong suit, but some things just demand you to use your voice.
Arjun: I think this question is more directed at Maddie and I have to agree that she has a way of speaking that belies her young age. I think part of the impact she makes is that people are used to those “my age” spouting opinions and diatribes, but when it comes from someone who is 17, who people assume don’t have a grasp of these things, it affects people more. My mother passed on her love of language and reading to me and by extension her grandchildren, and I think this is part of Maddie’s gift.
This administration has a cavalier and callous attitude toward this massive crisis. What do you each want to say to him if you had his ear?
Maddie: If I had his ear at this very moment, I would tell him this:
Donald, I am sick of your face. I am sick of your voice. If you want to do us all a favor, leave our lives forever. I do not want to hear about you ever again after November 3rd. You have killed my grandparents. You have tried to take my reproductive rights away. You have made America a safe space for domestic terrorists and racists. You are the plague on this country, you child. For once, just do us the honor of shutting your mouth.
Arjun: I have spent nearly four years saying what I would say to him via social media, and I do think he is directly to blame for much of the suffering and death this country is experiencing, out of proportion to the rest of the world. If was in a more generous frame of mind, I would tell him this had been his one chance to make a slam dunk – despite all the division he had caused in this country, if he had taken the pandemic seriously instead of ignoring and minimizing it, I believe he would have had an easy path to re-election – keeping his base and earning new converts via decisive action. Of course, he can’t and he didn’t. He’s responsible for death and suffering both because he didn’t mobilize the power of the federal government to institute nationwide contact tracing and testing, and also by discouraging people from following safety guidelines and minimizing spread. At this point, I would tell him that he will go down in history and unquestionably the worst, most unqualified president the US has ever had, and that history will not be kind.
What do you want to say to anyone who has either still not decided about who they will vote for or perhaps to change the minds of those who intend to re-elect the current president?
Maddie: I want to encourage them to absorb all of the information they can. For me, the choice is obvious who should be our next leader, as this current actually said my dead family members were weak “nobodies.” However, other people have generally gone through a pleasant past four years. I’m asking you now, even if the last four years have gone alright for you, how do you think they have been for others? Does it seem like we are more unified as a country? Does it really look like anything has made us “great again?” Because in my eyes, I have watched the country go from a position where presidential nominees respectfully argue about whose policies could better serve the American people- all of the American people- to a place where we have to convince our officials that our lives are actually worth protecting, where fear-mongering and false information are just things we accept from someone in one of the three highest positions of power- that’s not so great to me. I want us to be a world leader that champions intelligence, togetherness, constructive and scholarly debate, honesty, and humility. I have seen absolutely none of these qualities exemplified by our current leader and his policies. It’s okay to reconsider, it’s okay not to be sure, but it is absolutely not okay to believe that your interests are more deserving of protection than the very lives of other people. If we re-elect Donald Trump, we send a clear message to the rest of the world: America is so stubborn in retaining political affiliations that it would rather have a lousy leader than a smart one, America is okay with unnecessary deaths, America doesn’t believe in science, America doesn’t believe in human rights, America doesn’t care about the poor, America doesn’t care about all of the hard work that previous leaders, citizens, and immigrants have put into the country to help it, and America is so lost in the past that it doesn’t even want to be saved.
Arjun: Hard to improve on what Maddie said. Of course, from my perspective, it is hard to put myself in the place of someone who would want to re-elect this man, unless I am someone who relishes the hatred, bigotry, and division this administration has stoked, or has made some Faustian bargain with themselves because of opposition to abortion and will countenance basically any and all of his faults. I would ask them to try just for a little while to remove themselves from their news bubble of choice and reality look around the country at the sick, the isolated, the jobless, the grieving, the dispossessed, the incarcerated, and those in detention and really ask themselves if the country is better off than four years ago. I would also encourage them to seek out people in other countries and ask them without bias to discuss how the rest of the world sees the USA in its current condition (I would guess they will hear that there is a mixture of anger, incredulity, and pity).
Is there anything I have missed?
Maddie: I just want to mention that losing my grandparents was nothing like the flu. I watched my granddad die through the phone. I heard him painfully whispering for all of us and I felt his fear. His death, just like the 216,000 other deaths, were not isolated incidents. After we lost him, we had to lose her too. My dad had to pick up the pieces of their entire lives, all of their belongings, and worldly possessions in a matter of hours with a mask on because he wasn’t sure if my granddad’s bedroom was still contagious. We couldn’t see my dad for two weeks after that because we were sure that he had contracted it too. My granddad’s body couldn’t be cremated on time in accordance with Hindu tradition because there was an overflow of dead bodies in the morgue. I don’t remember seeing dead people stacked up into trucks like slaughtered cattle every year when it’s flu season. This isn’t the flu. This is COVID.
Arjun: Again, I don’t think you’ve missed anything because this at its heart is not that complicated, and the situation our country is in did not need to be this bad. The 215,000 dead are not a hoax, they didn’t die from the flu. The world didn’t engage in a pandemic with a million dead just to give Donald Trump a hard time. It’s a measure of his narcissism and amorality that that’s how he sees it
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Photo courtesy of Arjun and Maddie Kaji