Note from the 10th Circle of Hell

AJ Calhoun
6 min readMar 29, 2020


Personal protective equipment (PPE) we used don and dump countless times per day now must be rationed — and worn daily.

The current novel virus pandemic that is gripping our minds -- and some of our bodies — is only one more soldier in nature’s army of assassins seeking to kill us off as a species. While the coronavirus COVID19 has utterly consumed the spotlight over the past few weeks, all the rest of the legion of assassins is still relentlessly taking aim at all of us, and the combination of those known enemies and this one new one, which by this time next year will not be new at all, has created a situation unique in our history, and in my personal history.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I am a multi-skilled medical technician currently employed full time as a 1:1 patient care specialist, a “sitter” who tends the needs of a variety of patients who are at special risk either because of some serious physical ailment or some serious mental derangement, medically unstable or mentally unstable, possibly a suicide risk or sometimes sick and suffering from dementia or withdrawal from alcohol or heroin. All of them have special needs that require a constant observer. While I have worked in the emergency departments of a few hospitals (and the ER is my natural culture — I started out as a volunteer firefighter/EMT or “road doctor”) I am also trained in the specialty of critical care, diagnostic cardiology and critical incident stress management. It makes me a perfect fit for the float pool at my hospital (where, 22 years ago, I went through a critical care nursing externship in order to work in the ICU).

My work is demanding and also very gratifying. It is also sometimes frustrating, infuriating, boring, and heartbreaking. Often it is all those things.

What makes my work particularly interesting is the fact that it didn’t start (and won’t end) with COVID19. It began with the fire department many years ago, and featured rushing into situations most sane people would earnestly try to avoid. As “medical locals” (ambulance calls) began to become more and more dominant, I helped found the first fire department EMS division in the state of Maryland. When I eventually needed a change of venue (the family business had collapsed and I needed to find new work) the natural direction for me was allied health, and the kind of work I’ve done for the past 20-odd years, indoors instead of rushing to where the problems started. My first allied health job was as a civilian ED corpsman working at the National Naval Medical Center (now combined with and renamed as Walter Reed Medical Center) in Bethesda, MD. After that came the place I now work, and the critical care training. I’ve worked as a medical assistant also, and as cath lab support in Southern California (where I was trained in critical incident stress management). I’ve also been an editor and client advisor for a medical website and have published a few articles there, even had one cited in a medical textbook. I am well-rounded, in other words, a kind of utility infielder.

In 1994, right about the time the family business went under, I had to have life-saving emergency heart surgery, during which I also suffered a heart attack. I am diabetic, something that was not unexpected (everyone else in the family had it) when it showed up a dozen years ago. The diabetes is well controlled with medication. A few years ago, at home, I injured my back and subsequently suffered damage to the peroneal nerve in my left leg, so that I developed foot drop (inability to flex the foot, sometimes causing it to drag or “slap” when stepping). This last thing finally slowed me down a little, and earned me a handicap tag so that I could park closer to the entrances of places I needed to go, including work.

Oh, there’s one other thing that makes me somewhat of an oddity in my field of work: I am 75 years old. It’s not well known that I’m ancient, because I don’t look anywhere near my age, and my partner is a woman considerably younger (and who looks even younger than she is). This woman, who makes my living worthwhile, also constitutes a secondary risk zone for me because she has multiple medical conditions of her own, and there is now a much greater risk (though it has always existed) that I could bring home a bug no one wants anywhere near them. And yes, I am a clean person. Always have been.

I, however, am also the one working up close and personal with sick people, taking care of them, driving 35 miles round trip to and from work five days each week (unlike most nursing staff, I work a 40 hour week — full time, nowhere near ready or able to retire).

No pressure, right?

Recently some of my co-workers were joking with a staff physician about his not keeping up with the pace, and his answer startled them: “I’m over 80 years old. Gimme a break.” One of the nurses then asked “Why don’t you retire, for God’s sake?” His wry reply: “I can’t afford to.”

I feel your pain, sir, though I do hope to retire — or at least slow down — before I’m 80. It will be close, but I feel I can do it. Hell, like any 17 year old, I still feel invincible.

There is a point to all this autobiographical stuff I am telling you here, dear reader: It is that I find it supremely ironic that I, a “compromised” and “at risk” individual, find it necessary to work full time, and now in an arena where personal protective gear is the order of the day. And so on to my greater point:

When COVID19 is no longer the horror du jour, no longer the media’s sweetheart, people will still be suffering from diseases of the heart and lungs and will still get cancer and will still experience terrible, maiming mishaps, will still be struck by bullets stray or otherwise. What Robert Charroux once called “the daily holocaust,” will still be with us and upon us and people with my unique skill set will still be needed. Those other things have not suddenly, magically, gone away because of the coronavirus. They have not even subsided, except possibly trauma injuries from auto accidents, since I have noticed traffic on the accursed Beltway I must traverse 20 times per week has been noticeably lighter as people stay home and try to self-isolate so as to avoid sharing or catching the coronavirus blue plate special. Even so, our own bodies are always thinking of ways to kill us, and the emergency room at the hospital where I work is still the busiest in the county where I live, just outside Washington, DC.

At last count, my hospital had tested 151 patients for COVID19, had, I think, 16 come up positive, and currently only have 2–3 hospitalized, all on one floor or in the ICU. I also, at last check, am unaware of any co-workers who have become infected. I am sure both these oddities are only temporary, but it is notable that DC and nearby Maryland and Virginia counties are not nearly, as yet, overwhelmed because of COVID19. It will likely get worse, yes, but now, with new and fast-turnaround testing for COVID19 about to become available, prevention should become more effective, although more widespread testing will of course expose more people who are infected, so the numbers everywhere will skyrocket. The death rate, however, should drop a little — and then the peak will have been reached, and the rate of infections and deaths will start to drop off, and the antsy capitalists out there can “re-open” the country for business as usual, which of course includes overpriced medicines for people who have been sick since long before this debacle started and will continue to be long after it is a blip in the rear view mirror.

Business as usual. It’s hard to imagine that being a very happy prospect, at least in my business, which is never anywhere near “usual.”

If you are still wondering why, if the battle where I am lacks the intensity of, say, New York or Los Angeles, I still refer to my battlement as the 10th Circle of Hell, I will repeat this for you: After the coronavirus pandemic is no more remarkable than the flu, people will still be living close to the edge, will still be stricken with heart attacks, strokes, asthma, COPD, various cancers, sepsis, anaphylactic shock, shattered bones, unstoppable bleeding, lost minds, self-destructive ideation, and, of course, the next virus du jour to come down the pike.

Hell is open 24/7, 365.



AJ Calhoun

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.