Yes, it was hair-raising. Yes, it was scary. Yes, it’s gone on for a long time … I’ve been doing retail foods for 56 years, and I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. Hopefully, never again.
It’s really hard to stop here and frame all that into a conversation when there are so many pieces to my fears — my employees, my customers, my suppliers. It was just a collage of unknowing and fear that propelled us into a place that is unprecedented in many of our lives.
That we were able to go COVID-free for eight months on the frontlines — roughly 55 employees — is a small miracle. The small amount [of COVID cases] that we had managed to close us for a few days … We got our feet back on the ground, got our quarantine issues squared away, then I ended up getting sick. I was the only one who got hospitalized. So from every possible angle you could think of, this had its twists and turns, and people were working beyond the state of exhaustion and the state of fear, wondering if they were sane in their minds to be on the frontlines dealing with this every day.
My problem is when it started, I was already doing 65 hours a week, six days a week, 11 hours a day. So I couldn’t do much more than that. I got up to around 70 hours, and then we had everything covered. It’s what I was doing during that time that got twisted — from shagging carriages to playing policeman at the ‘in’ door; handling crowd control; trying to talk to people who were emotionally distraught and were speaking oddly because of that pressure on them; trying to handle suppliers; talking to the Steamship Authority, who bent over backward and were absolutely super. We couldn’t have asked for more cooperation and support than they gave. So it was just being on the frontline of an enemy you can’t see, you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing, and then we just persevered and stayed a grocery store. We didn’t turn into an online drop box center of sorts. There was all kinds of pressure from all kinds of retailers around the country telling me we were going in the wrong direction. Nobody was keeping their heads down and doing the same old, same old. I was committed to — we’ve been a community grocery store for a long time, we’re not going to go to curbside pickup — the fact is that we didn’t have any help to accomplish such a thing. Online shopping, we didn’t have a quarter of a million dollars of stock in place. It would take six months to get that up and going. So we just hunkered down and did what we did, and I think we did it pretty darn good. I just have to say a huge thank-you to my employees, who went way beyond the call of duty. They supported me. They stayed with it. They stayed on the frontlines. We’re short-staffed even today. We were short-staffed in the beginning of this.
They did super [when he got sick]. I heard afterward when I got back — Thanksgiving week — they were scared. They needed the captain on the boat, and they were used to me being there and supporting them and working with them. My absence and the fear of losing me weighed in on top of the difficult situation and made it worse. It’s hard to put words to that … I came back from the hospital, went home Tuesday night Thanksgiving week, came into work Wednesday morning just to say hi to everyone. I think I lasted two hours. I had no energy … I just went around Wednesday and politely, from a distance, hugged everybody and just said, thank you. I told them I was committed to coming back … The whole thing was such an amazing experience.
Don’t forget when this all started, I was flown to Boston. [My wife] was out in Iowa taking care of her aging mom and dad. So the first part of this she was handling from a distance, and then had to drive home for two days by herself with this on her heart. So I spent eight days up there in the hospital … She got back the day before I was discharged. Then, with much concern and trepidation for her health and well-being, she was up there at Beth Israel picking me up and taking me home. Even though the doctors were telling me I was free of COVID, we were still scared. Whose word do you trust? So it was a huge challenge all the way around.
Mama bear, you know, she heard a couple of things from me, and I think what she heard was, my immune system was shot, I had a damaged heart, I had double pneumonia, and I had about five pounds of fluid in each leg … There were days where it was questionable about whether I was on my deathbed or not, so for her to get back from Iowa and step in, she was fighting for survival with me. It was a very interesting experience the two of us will never forget. We didn’t know what to do, which way to turn … We have three children, and watching them watch me, wow, beyond what words can really describe. Three kids at home, all are adopted, then watching me go through this, fears that came up in them and what tomorrow may be, I can’t imagine.
When I got up there, I spent a day in the emergency room at Beth Israel on one of those stretchers, waiting for a room to open up. Mass. General was full, Brigham & Women’s was full, and I finally got a room at Beth Israel. I didn’t get to see the doctor I have now until six weeks ago. He’s the one doing the evaluation on my heart March 23rd. Through this, I had someone come in who I didn’t even know was a doctor, asking me questions, looking around. I’m there facing COVID. Everyone coming in my room had a full jumpsuit on. Just think two to three people, 24 hours a day, for eight days. Every time, the jumpsuit was changed. You’re dealing with circumstances where just getting food from the cafeteria or being moved … was a challenge.
Thank God I went into this healthy. I’m not sure where this would be if that wasn’t the case.