LONDON – From resounding applause to ostracization and isolation.
That's essentially the journey Lt. Cmdr. Robert Embleton, who served 34 years in Britain's Royal Navy, took by ambulance when discharged from Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, southwestern England, on April 8 following his near-month sickness with COVID-19.
Arriving at his retirement home, he immediately went into self-isolation with his wife of 55 years, Jean, who has shown no symptoms of the virus. Soon after, Embleton realized he was carrying some new baggage — the stigma of the virus. He even considered buying a bell to warn of his presence.
“I was regarded as a sort of leper, a plague carrier. Some people when they spotted me, they recoiled,” the 79-year-old told The Associated Press. “I was particularly regarded as a menace.”
That's some contrast to his final moments at Derriford Hospital, when the “somewhat embarrassed” Embleton received a round of applause from all the front-line staff from the cleaners to the doctors.
Embleton, who received an MBE honor from Queen Elizabeth II in 1993 for outstanding service to the Royal Navy, thinks the lockdown rules are too strict for some elderly people. He understands the need to shield those elderly with underlying health conditions, but says others should be treated with much more “common sense.”
The prospect of this type of stigmatization was something he had discussed in Derriford with the 57-year-old Poorna Gunasekera when they were in a ward together recovering from the virus.
Gunasekera, who unbeknownst to Embleton was a doctor and had been treated by three of his former students, thanks the former naval officer for “single-handedly” lifting his spirits. The fact that Embleton had visited Gunasekera's hometown of Kandy, Sri Lanka, forged a connection, and the two have reconnected on Facebook since their brushes with death.
“I've always been a morale officer,” Embleton explains.
Gunasekera remembers that all four in the ward shared the same anxiety — of becoming fresh sources of outbreaks after leaving the hospital.
“It is a dreadful fear and we expected to be somewhat stigmatized, and that would be normal because I suppose I would do the same if the roles were reversed,” he said.
Time is a great healer and the stigma slowly abates. On a gloriously sunny early spring Sunday afternoon, there was a breakthrough.
As is his wont for a traditional Sunday lunch, Embleton decided to open one of his finest bottles of wine — a Châteauneuf-du-Pape — and offered a glass to the lady next door, who is also 79.
“Then, blinking in the sunshine, all along the top floor, the others came out with their glasses filled and gave all a wave and a smile,” he said. “Cheer and optimism.”
British charities for the elderly, like Age U.K., have heard similar tales and hope that a ramped-up testing program will provide some reassurance.
“It just adds another layer of tragedy to the situation that residents who recover — something that should be celebrated as a much-needed piece of good news — are feeling isolated and ostracized as a result,” said Ruthe Isden, head of health influencing at Age U.K.
The ostracization may now have gone, but the isolation may be in its infancy, especially if social distancing restrictions on the elderly remain in place for longer, until a vaccine is, if ever, produced. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has also recovered from COVID-19, is set to extend the lockdown restrictions on Sunday, bar a couple of minor tweaks.
Embleton says the lockdown is “sapping the equanimity and self-confidence" of most elderly people and is “increasingly intolerable” for those like him who have no underlying health conditions and who are hugely active members of their local communities.
“It is not right to treat all old people as children, incapable of assessing risk,” he said.
Luckily, both he and Jean have the upheavals and separation of the naval years to help them get through the weeks and months ahead.
Embleton said the isolation reminds him of the time he spent aboard the HMS Galatea, a Leander-class frigate, near the Arctic Circle, during the Cod War of 1976 — confrontations between Britain and Iceland over North Atlantic fishing rights.
“Doing things like a best part of the year in the Arctic, just you and your ship, it's rather like being in the over-70s lockdown for COVID-19,” he said.
“You start thinking differently, you’ve got to get on with it, you won’t be going home, you won’t be seeing your family.”
The same applies for Jean, who endured her husband's brush with death in self-isolation at home.
“It’s not pleasant but as a serviceman’s wife, particularly a naval wife, then you get used to these periods of time that you are on your own so I probably weathered it rather better than some people," she said.
"I was brought up to think that husbands went away and that they came back.”
Well, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Embleton did come back and he's planning a lot more long walks, gym workouts and drinking fine wines.
And hopefully before he turns 80 in November.