COVID-19 story by Holly Cohn, July 4, 2020

Holly Cohn shares her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic in Madison. She speaks primarily about her sister, who was one of the first people in Madison diagnosed with COVID-19, and how the virus has impacted her family physically and emotionally. She also shares her perspective on local and federal government response during this crisis, her own response and lifestyle changes in order to keep herself and others safe, and how her personal experience with the virus shapes her emotional reaction to those who do not comply with public health guidelines.

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  • Identifier: covid19-065
    Narrator Name: Holly Cohn
    Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
    Date of interview: 7/4/2020

    [00:00:00] - Start of interview
    [00:02:19] - Where are you joining us from today
    [00:03:01] - What were things like, leading up to the middle of March / Was your sister in contact with you while she was travelling
    [00:07:24] - What was it like to hear that your sister had tested positive
    [00:18:33] - Terry referred to many of you in her story as her cheerleaders
    [00:19:48] - What are some of the residual effects that you see in her now
    [00:23:49] - What do you think of the response from local, state, and federal governments
    [00:25:58] - When you see people not wearing masks, how do you feel, or how do you respond to them
    [00:28:11] - Have you found the Safer at Home time to be a time of self-reflection
    [00:31:48] - Do you have a meditation practice that has helped you through this
    [00:33:36] - Is there anything that you want to talk about that we didn’t talk about


    Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater, and I am a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project: Stories from a Distance series. Today’s date is Saturday, July 4, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via Zoom. I’ll have our storyteller introduce themselves: please tell us your full name and describe your connection to Madison.

    Holly Cohn: Well, my full name is Marilyn Holly Cohn, but I’m Holly Cohn. (laughs) I dropped the Marilyn. I came here to go to graduate school to get a Master of Fine Arts in small metals. And I spent three years getting that degree, and at that time in history, it was really hard to get a job as a professor, so—like four hundred people per job. So I ended up staying here, and I’ve had numerous, long running jobs since I’ve been here. I currently work at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Ophthalmology as a research specialist. But my job as a research specialist really came about because of my visual acuity, and my color sense, and everything I learned as an artist. I had no science background. I never took any science at all. And before that, I worked for fifteen years at a nonprofit that did parent education and family support. And I worked with a large variety of the community, got to know people of numerous different cultures, because we worked with Hispanic parents, interacial families. I worked in the Harambe building. But I did that for fifteen years, and then I’ve been working at the university since. And the one other thing that I’ve been doing, actually all those years, is I have been teaching small metals part-time through Madison College. I’ve been doing that for over thirty-six years. But, presently, I can’t teach, and don’t want to teach because it’s a very hands-on situation. Anyway, that’s my story. (laughs)

    Interviewer: Well, we’re about to dive into your story, of course. But I do want to ask, where are you joining us from today? So our listener can get a sense of where you are.

    Holly Cohn: I’m in my home, and I’m in a room that I use as my office for my job. And, just as a quick, little background, it was my husband’s office, because he was a freelance photographer. And his name is Bob Rashid, but he died in 2008. So he and I have lived here, lived here for a long time together as co-artists. But anyway, I am talking from my office. (laughs)

    Interviewer: Well Holly, you reached out to the Madison Living History Project because I had actually interviewed your sister Terry, and she was one of the first people in Madison who was diagnosed with COVID-19. You reached out to us to share your perspective on that, and I’m grateful that you’re willing to do so. Before we get to that part of the story, could you tell me what things were like leading up to the middle of March? What do you remember hearing about? And your sister was travelling, and was she in contact with you at all during that time?

    Holly Cohn: Yes, she was. She was actually texting. I don’t recall that we spoke. We might have spoken because of what happened. So here’s what was happening before then: first of all, I was really aware of COVID, and had done a lot of reading, and had listened to The Daily on The New York Times, who had been interviewing doctors and people involved who were studying what was going on. And just sort of as a little background, to tell you, because this really had a huge effect on me: one of the doctors had said everybody in the world will have known somebody who has had COVID, and probably have lost a life to COVID. So that was a feeling that, you know, sort of stayed with me. And I remember, before March fifteenth, it still felt so far away. But Terry had been travelling and got sick before she came back home, but it wasn’t, it ended up not being COVID. But when she texted and said, “I’m sick,” I was in Chicago, sitting with my other sister, and we all started thinking, I wonder if she's got COVID. And we got really concerned and wanted her to be possibly tested, but she was concerned—she didn’t think she had it; she thought if she was tested she would never make it back to the US. And, it turns out, she recovered from that illness. And then, with them travelling back, I ended up going out and buying a whole bunch of food to put in their house so that they could make food, because they had to be quarantined. I didn’t think they’d be sick; I thought they’d just be quarantined. And I was so relieved that they made it onto one of the last flights, I think, back to this country. I just was really relieved because I was picking them up at the bus station, which is only a couple miles from their house. And so, when I went to pick them up, I brought us each, all of us masks; we were all wearing masks, and I picked them up. We didn’t hug or anything, and I dropped them off. I didn’t carry their bags in; they carried it all in. And then, the next day— Terry had had a cough and she just thought it was a regular cough, because Terry has a lot of respiratory issues, and she does have a regular, a cough that won’t go away. She wasn’t aware that she was sick. But she started, I think she might have started feeling sick the next day; I can’t recall. But I— A friend came over who didn’t get near me, we were already keeping our distance from everyone, and they completely sanitized my car. And I called my dentist and said, “I’m not going to come to my appointment. I don’t know if I’ve been exposed.” And then Terry did get sick. We didn’t know, because she hadn’t had her test, but I just quarantined myself immediately, and didn’t— I knew I wouldn't be going to the store; I had bought myself a whole bunch of food anyway, for a couple weeks. And so that kind of brings us up to when she did come back here. That’s kind of the background of that.

    Interviewer: Now, from my understanding, we’re at about March fourteenth, which is when she said that she tested positive, once she got home.

    Holly Cohn: Uh-huh. Right, okay.

    Interviewer: Once that was confirmed, that she had tested positive, what was that like for you to hear?

    Holly Cohn: My heart sank. And I remembered that interview with The Daily on The New York Times, and I thought, So this is the person I know that is going to die? I mean, I really was upset, but it wasn’t like it hit completely home, but it was a thought. And, at that point, the place where I was working, they had really been proactive, and actually had us all already working offsite. No, I know what they did. I called up work and said, “I can’t come to work, I’ve got to be quarantined.” But then, even the next day, they already—they had everybody working offsite. So the news hit me kind of hard. I couldn’t—we didn’t know yet whether Michael, her husband, was sick. He didn’t have that cough that she had. But I can’t quite recall how fast she progressed to getting extremely sick, because she became extremely sick. Which was really hard. (laughs) Which, I mean, I can tell you what that was like, because she got so sick—she sounded so weak on the phone; she could still talk on the phone. And then what happened was I couldn’t bring them any food, but they really have a large community of friends, and people dropped off a lot of food. And I have to say, a little bit of it was a little humorous, because the first slew of food was all lentil soup. I think they got delivered something like four kinds of lentil soup. And the next kind of food was tomato soup, but that was like about three or four kinds of tomato soup. And I have a funny story about the tomato soup: you know with COVID your taste goes away, and one of the things was Michael had gotten sick but not as sick as Terry, and they were really keeping their distance from each other. And I wasn’t seeing either of them during this time, but Michael was preparing the food that people were bringing and heating it up. And by the time the tomato soup came—first of all, Michael doesn’t like tomato soup. Terry didn’t have much; she had lost her taste and her sense of smell. So he fed her the tomato soup at night, and then the next day he was heating it up for lunch, because she was sort of in the mood for it; she wasn’t eating hardly anything. But she starts eating it, (laughs) and I guess she yelled down to Michael and said, “Michael! I need some bread; it tastes really different today. I really need some bread!” And so then Michael went, and he figured out he had heated up this salsa that my other sister makes that is like fiery hot, and he brought her a bowl of salsa to eat. (laughs) I know, and so she was eating salsa, heated up salsa.

    But anyway, back to Terry. So when Terry was getting really sick, her friends were contacting her, and then she got too weak to really communicate with them. And that was getting really hard to see how weak she was. And I don’t think she had any idea. I know she couldn’t have had any idea of how she sounded, because she did really get to the point where she could not talk at all. She would just text and say, “I can’t talk.” And I started communicating with setting up a group email to people because people were contacting me; some from Madison, but other people from my family, and old friends from out of state. So I was trying to keep them up to date. And that was kind of hard because Terry had this really high fever of one hundred and three, and it would go down a little bit, and then she’d be feeling like, Oh, I’m getting better. So I’d be emailing, Oh, it looks better now, you know. And then the next day it was back or even worse. And so it was a rollercoaster of feeling like she was getting better, and then feeling like she was getting worse. And, as it got worse, I was really thinking, I wonder if she’s so dehydrated that’s why she can’t talk. So at that point I could go shopping, and I remember getting her a whole bunch of nice water, like Perrier, or one of those waters, Pellegrino waters, thinking that she would want to drink that instead. And her daughter got her Pedialyte, which was really important because she was dehydrated some from the cough. Which is not really, I don’t think, why she was weak though; she was really weak from the COVID. I mean, it was really bad. So then, at the point at which she couldn’t talk, I was talking to my younger sister, and we thought she wasn’t going to make it. Because she, I think, might have said something like, “I don’t know if I can make it.” And that’s when, I mean, the tears just came between me and my other sister. And I remember I went into my backyard, and this is one reason I was talking about my husband having died, because I’ve experienced—it was a very sudden loss with him. And I didn’t see him when he died, and I was—I mean, I wasn’t with him when he died. And not being with Terry, or being able to have a connection with her, was bringing up some of those feelings. And, I mean, there’s been other really big losses in my life for all three—Terry, me, and Nina, my sisters—because our parents died when we were quite young, just three months apart from each other, and one of them was very sudden. And so I’m saying I’m sort of used to this kind of jerky loss feeling, and I went into my backyard and started to sob because there’s flowers all over my yard that my sister’s given me. And I couldn’t go into my backyard after my husband died because he had this beautiful part of the garden. So you know, it, like, brings up all the fears from the past when you have somebody not knowing what is going to happen.

    And Terry, at one point, just texted, “I’m going to the emergency room,” but she didn’t say why, and I didn’t know why. (laughs) And then I think that Michael— I think she didn’t know how her breathing was. And the first time she went to the emergency room, she wasn’t quite as sick, and the emergency room was the regular emergency room, because they could still take people in. And the second time she went, they had set up a whole different emergency room at the UW Hospital. And it really upset her. She just said, “I’m in this room. There’s no place to go to the bathroom. They’re just kind of jabbing me.” I don’t know, she, I think, was pretty—what should I say, you know, with a high fever like that, really, extremely upset. She didn’t know why, why Michael, her husband, wasn’t answering the phone, but he was talking to me, (laughs) telling me about the emergency room. And those two times, she went home, and she felt like if she had stayed at the emergency room and gone to the hospital she wasn’t going to ever come home. And the third time she went to the emergency room, she called me and she sounded like she could hardly talk. I think she went a third time. But her heart started racing, and she called me and it sounded like she could hardly talk. And I, and she needed this medication, and my heart started racing out of worry. And I raced out to the pharmacy and felt like I couldn’t get this filled fast enough to drop it off to her house. So, I mean, there was just a lot of panic involved, that’s what I would say. And I think the largest, you know, some friends experience that same panic through communicating through me for Terry, you know. And, I don’t know, it was quite, it was quite a rollercoaster, (laughs) until her fever really stayed down. Because it was hard to trust it, because it would go down to ninety-nine and then go back up to one hundred and three, you know. And each time it would go back down you’d think it’s better, and it wasn’t. I don’t remember now if I said one time in the emergency room, and I know that my sister found it even hard to talk about this, but the resident there had said something to her like, looking at her very sincerely with very panicked eyes like, “Because of your age, and your symptoms, and your medical condition, you know, I’m just hoping you can make it through this.” I think it was some words that made her feel like he didn’t think she was going to make it. And I think that that just really was traumatic, (laughs) of course. I think the distance was really hard. I know I felt a lot better once I could make food for them and deliver them food. Then I mean, I’m telling you, I became a chef. (laughs) I mean I really felt like, Good, I can at least do something. I can make them food.

    Oh, and one other thing I should say is, way back in this, about four days after I was quarantined, a public health nurse called me to talk to me, and I really felt like the public health and the way Madison was dealing with following up and statistics was really great. It was—you know, I felt really glad that they were being so cautious and particular in keeping track of everything.

    Interviewer: Terry referred to many of you in her story as her cheerleaders and I can see what she means by that now, especially when she was getting those kinds of comments from medical staff, that they were afraid for her life.

    Holly Cohn: Yeah, I also say that our family has quite a bit of humor in it. So, actually, when she was abroad and when she came home, first of all, when she was overseas I started sending her these texts using the little, I used a little emoji thing thing that made me look like a genie, (laughs) and so I said, “The genie’s looking into the crystal ball and saying everything’s going to be okay.” So, you know, the genie was also sending her good vibes over the texts. I’m pretty sure I did that. I haven’t look back to see, but yeah, I was really cheering her on. Oh, and yeah, Nina, I know, her other sister, you know, who lives in Chicago, I know was sending her really, you know, trying to say, “Oh, that’s good news, Terry. You’ve, like, made it through another day, and you’re going to make it through another day,” and yeah, we were definitely cheering her on. (laughs)

    Interviewer: What are some of the residual side effects that you see in her now? Things that weren’t present before.

    Holly Cohn: Oh boy. First of all, I know she thinks about it, I’m fairly certain, thinks about the fear and the weight, and the whole thing around COVID is with her all the time. I do know that. And she’s really very aware of how people are or are not keeping each other safe outside with masks, and it’s something she talks about quite a bit. And I think that it is extremely upsetting to see people being cavalier and not protecting other people by wearing masks. I know that, and I also know for a while she was, oh she felt really good about giving plasma and trying to provide as much as, you know, she could as a survivor. I now have another relative who has COVID. It’s some in-laws of mine, and it’s hard to say, they’ve been sick for a few days, I don’t know how sick they’ve gotten yet. But when she, when Terry heard the news though she goes, “Oh, I feel terrible.” You know, she’s very affected by knowing, hearing about people that have it. And I think that it’s hard for her, maybe, to read some of the personal stories yet. I’m not real— No, I know she read them for a while, I was too, you know, in The New York Times and, you know, just when they really tell you about particular people. Physically, I don’t know that her cough has left yet. I don’t know that her lungs have really cleared all the way. And I think that it’s made her really, somewhat slow down and think about a lot of things, and really be very thoughtful about a lot of different things. I think it’s, you know, sort of a life-changing event when you have a, I think she felt it was really a near-death experience. And I also know she has said she doesn’t think if she got, she doesn’t know if she got sick again if she could make it through; she just feels like she couldn’t. So, and she’s made a lot of masks for people. (laughs) And she’s very cautious. And neither she nor I will go to a restaurant or anything like when— As far as things opening up, the only thing that I’ve really done is grocery shop, I mean I have not ever had my food delivered to me because I didn’t really see how that made any real difference, you know, to have it delivered versus go to the store. But, yeah, I know that I won’t go into any place for a long, long time. And as I said, you know, like I, well I told you this earlier, you know, I’m an artist and I was supposed to have an exhibition, but I don’t even—I’m not going to do that because it’s in December and I really don’t think that we’re going to be through this in December, by any means. So it’s a long term caution. I have been able to see people, social distancing apart, outside. You know, like, outside in my garden, on my porch, you know, where there’s a way to distance. That I will do. (laughs)

    Interviewer: What do you think of the response from local, state, and federal governments? Has government done enough to prevent the spread of COVID?

    Holly Cohn: Well, you know, I was so disappointed when the governor felt pressured to open up the state. And I mean I think it was from pressure. I really, I truly believe he didn’t want to do that. And I was really— I mean, I know that Dane County wanted to stay closed. I think there’s, I mean there’s been so much pressure from so many things now to open things up. And I have to say, no they haven’t done enough because now it’s spread much more widely, and they haven’t— Oh, I wrote my co-op about three weeks ago, and I said, “I’m in the co-op. I see people not wearing masks. What is your policy?” Well, they wrote back several weeks later, and said, “Now we are requiring people to have masks.” I saw they had masks outside. I mean, other than that, they had done a great job. But somebody got sick in there anyway; nobody—people weren’t required. So the fact that people are not required to wear masks is not enough. I mean, and the fact that they opened up restaurants, which to me is one of the worst. And if they open up— I don’t know if they’ve opened up movie theatres, which to me is a terrible situation, (laughs) to open up a movie theatre. I mean, I realize the complexity of it all. I think that they should have put efforts into somehow figuring out some other ways, or whatever, to help. I can’t tell you, I haven’t thought about it enough, of how they could have helped businesses, but they should, you know, not opening things up is not enough. And no, I think our president has done the worst of anything, and I think he’s promoted our, the fact that we have such a high rate of COVID by making fun of it, by just everything that he has done in respects to COVID has, could not have been worse. (laughs) So, yeah.

    Interviewer: When you see people not wearing masks, how do you feel, or how do you respond to them?

    Holly Cohn: Well, okay, so I was at Woodman’s— I mean, there are people who don’t wear masks. I’ll tell you how I responded to this couple at Woodman’s, (laughs) because it made me really angry. First of all, Woodman’s says on the loudspeaker, “Please don’t shop more than once a week. If you shop, have one person from your household come. Don’t have more than one. And please, you know, keep your distance.” I think they might have said to wear a mask. I think their employees do a great job, it’s not Woodman’s. So there’s this couple shopping together, not wearing masks. And all, I didn’t,— And not keeping their distance from me. And I’ve become, I feel like I should be on rollerblades. (laughs) I’ve become like a rollerblader through the store, you know, Oh there’s someone over there—pew!—go over that way, go over that way. You know, it’s like, turn around and go the other way. But I didn’t say anything to them because, I’ll tell you, I don’t trust the big fight that could occur, because I did hear this one man who wasn’t wearing a mask, being angry that some people were wearing masks, were going slowly, and he was, like, swearing at them, you know, at these slow people who were whatever. I mean this was just this one man, but who knows how people feel. So what I did with that couple, I felt really angry; I didn’t say anything, but I can’t say that I gave them a kind eye. (laughs) I gave them the evil eye, (laughs) through my mask. I don’t know if they could see it. (laughs) I feel angry. I feel like it’s people wandering around with their own self-privilege because I’m wearing my mask for other people. I mean, I don’t know, I mean supposedly it helps, certainly, me some, but it helps keep my moisture in. I can feel it in there. (laughs)

    Interviewer: Some people have talked about this time, a lot of time that we’ve spent at home, as being a time of self-reflection and things like that. Have you found the Safer at Home time to be like that?

    Holly Cohn: Yes, and I’ll tell you, because of the kind of artist I am, my art is very self-reflective in certain ways, even though it’s really a reflection that can be seen by anybody, in terms of the way they would interpret it. So I do a lot of that anyway, but what it has done for me, it’s slowed me down even more. And I notice it particularly in a few places in my life: one is in my garden. You know, I’ve gardened before, and people have come and been able to see my garden. And not many people will be able to come this year, but I really do it so much for myself anyway. And I’m doing it so much slower. I slowly pace through the garden and I’m thinking, I wonder what would happen if I do this over there, and what that would do to next year. And then I also say to myself, If I’m here. (laughs) And then I look at—it’s so interesting—I look at flowers that are going to open up soon and I think, Oh, that’s so cool. And I never did that before. You know, I might say, “Oh yeah, that’s going to bloom then, and then this will come to bloom.” But now it’s like, looking at it really slowly and with kind of a lot of meditation on it. And my husband had bird feeders in the backyard, and I wasn’t able to have bird feeders for a long time. But I put up bird feeders this year, and I just sit and I watch the bird feeders a lot more. I also have a lot more time because I don’t have to drive across town to and back work, I can be at home. And the other thing I do at home is carefully go through my collections of things, and paring them down, and just looking through things really carefully. Here’s a meditative thing I did the other day: I—so, my mother died when I was nineteen and we had to go through all of the parental stuff way back then, and one of the things is these dish towels that were popular back then that people would embroider that would say, Monday’s wash day, Tuesday’s whatever they were. And so Terry had given them to me and said, “I don’t really need these.” And then I was looking at them and thought, I don’t really need these; I think I will send them, maybe to my niece, to my niece who never met her grandmother. And then I thought, Maybe I’ll have them made into a quilt that will be passed around through the family. Whereas at first I was like, Maybe I’ll give these to Saint Vinnie’s. You know, (laughs) and it’s like, just a whole bunch of meditation because I hadn’t really thought about my niece not having a set of grandparents that she never met, you know. It’s just made me meditate on a whole lot of my life.

    Interviewer: You’ve mentioned the word “meditate” several times; do you have a meditation practice that has helped you through this?

    Holly Cohn: No, not at all. Here’s what I meditate on— No, I actually—I know what it is to meditate on something to try to keep your mind still because I don’t have a still mind. (laughs) But I tried to do that at a difficult time in my life and, you know, it didn’t work that well for me. But when I say “meditate,” here’s one of the things I’ve done for years and years: I’m a painter as well as—I work in all different medias, and so when I’m painting, I put down colors and I go, Oh, you bring out the light when you put in the dark, and you bring out the dark when you put in the light. And you bring out the warmth when you put in the cool, and you bring out the cold when you put in the warmth. And making—it actually has to do with the actual painting process, but I’m actually thinking about those ideas in the meditative realm. So I guess that’s about as much as a formal meditation that I do. But it’s not even formal because it’s actively happening, and I’m watching it happen; I’m watching the light come out with the dark, and the dark come out with the light. But that meditation goes across to those same things; mediating on anger and peace, being aware of the two. The meditation works in my life in that respect.

    Interviewer: Is there anything that you want to talk about that we didn’t talk about?

    Holly Cohn: Well, I guess the only thing I’ll say is, I didn’t think I’d feel sad during this interview. I didn’t think it would bring up sadness, but I would say that COVID has made me very aware of loss. And that’s what I think I’m feeling right now, is sadness. And when I have thought and read about people who have lost their lives to COVID, I really have felt so profoundly sad. So that, I guess, is the way I would, (laughs) that’s the only thing I would add to that: the surprise of how deep the sadness is.

    Interviewer: Well, thank you for being willing to share that with everyone who’s listening.

    Holly Cohn: Thank you for interviewing me, and for doing this whole project. Thank you.