It’s been more than 100 days since Craig Dolch has been able to hug his severly disabled son.

By Craig Dolch

For The Palm Beach Post

Everyone has a reason why they will – or won’t – wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists and health experts tell us it’s the only way to stop the spread of COVID-19. Others say it’s a violation of their civil liberties or it’s too uncomfortable – “things have to breathe,” as a Palm Beach County resident memorably said.

There are more than 127,000 reasons for wearing a mask – the number of deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 related illnesses in just the last four months.

My reason is simple: My 29-year-old son, Eric.

>>READ: Understanding Eric: Life stopped when the fever hit

Eric was a healthy 14-year-old in 2005 when a bacterial infection reached his brain and doctors had to place him in a medically-induced coma for almost four months. He survived the illness – barely – but has been left severely disabled.

In 2012, we placed Eric in a group home because we were no longer able to take care of his many needs and pay nursing 24/7 out of pocket. The group home was the best place for Eric because of its level of care and he could be with seven other young adults with similar health issues.

Eric’s mom, Ava Van de Water, and I received a phone call from a group home official on March 16. We were told Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed an executive order that prohibited visitors to be allowed in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes.

Effective immediately.

We couldn’t see Eric and Eric couldn’t leave the facility other than to go to a hospital for an emergency. There was no chance to say good-bye or to explain to him why we wouldn’t be with him every day.

As heartbreaking as that news was to hear, I expected it. Every person in that group home has serious health issues and a compromised immunity system, and I knew the emerging pandemic was going to have to change protocols.

That was 107 days ago.

For 107 days, we have been unable to visit Eric, hug him, talk with him, feed him, watch TV with him, take him to his therapy sessions, doctor appointments and go swimming.

We missed Eric’s 29th birthday in May other than visiting the home to bring him his favorite meal, pizza, and trying to get Eric’s attention from outside.

I thought the 115 days Eric spent in the medically-induced coma – at the time a record at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami – was the longest, most helpless stretch of his life. That will soon be eclipsed by the 107 days-and-counting span of the pandemic.

Add the coma and the pandemic, and that’s more than seven months of Eric’s life.

Fortunately, the group home allows Eric’s personal nurse, Carlos Restrepo, to be with Eric several hours a day and Carlos will FaceTime Eric with Ava and I for a few minutes every weekday. But talking to someone on the phone is obviously not the same as being there, especially with Eric non-verbal after a pair of 10-hour-plus brain operations.

Eric’s situation is no different than thousands of elderly and sick individuals throughout Florida who have been left isolated because of the pandemic. Families have been unable to say goodbye to their parents or grandparents, not to mention how difficult it is for those who have become prisoners in their facilities. More than 1,500 people have died in long-term care facilities in Florida due to COVID-19.

So excuse me when someone says it’s their right not to wear a mask. What about my son’s rights and others who have no control over how the public reacts to the greatest medical crisis of our lifetime?

>>READ: Golfweek names Craig Dolch father of the year

Without a mask, they are the silent face of this pandemic. They have no say.

For weeks, I was counting down the days to July 1 – the date we expected the governor to allow visitors into these homes again. I stopped doing that two weeks ago when the number of positive tests in Florida started to spike.

Mostly because people won’t wear masks.

Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade county officials have now made wearing masks mandatory in public places to stem the tide, though plenty still refuse to do so. It will take weeks before the numbers start to decline, and it may take months before nursing homes and group homes will be reopened in Florida.

It may take 107 more days, absent of a vaccine. And when they do reopen, we have been told visits to Eric will be limited to 30 minutes per day, only by one parent, in a specific room, by appointment and masks must be worn.

We won’t be able to kiss our son, in other words.

That is such a price for these individuals to pay, for something they have no say.

I now tell Eric via FaceTime I don’t know when I will see him, but that I love him and I’m sorry I can’t be with him every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like for him to be stuck in his room day after day, not even feeling the warmth of sunshine.

For those who wear masks, I thank you.

To the rest of you, I borrow a recent line from Bruce Springsteen: Put on a %$#*@! mask!

For my son and a lot of other Erics out there.

Craig Dolch worked for The Evening Times/Palm Beach Post from 1982-2008 and in 2006 started the Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation. He is writing a book on his son’s medical journey.


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