Dear Harken Derm Readers,
First of all, I sincerely hope all of you are safe, well, and remain optimistic.
Life took a screeching halt mid-March for most of us. We were going a hundred miles an hour through a life filled with work, travel, and seemingly never-ending plans that suddenly have stopped. I worked full time as a dermatologist, at three different locations; the VA, serving veterans with skin diseases, at our teaching hospital looking after high-risk skin cancer patients and also at the academic multidisciplinary cosmetic center enhancing and restoring beauty and healthy skin. After work and weekends, I took up my second job of managing Harken Derm. And of course, my most cherished and loved job was just as important; spending time with my husband Peter and my daughter Aliz and her boyfriend Alex (all also part of the Harken Derm team), cooking dinners, and sitting around the dinner table was a tradition even before COVID.
Our family was on a long trip that started Christmas time in Australia for the Sydney-Hobart race, then off to the Philippines for Peter’s high school reunion and some amazing snorkeling adventures at the beautiful islands. Beginning of March, we stayed on our Dutch friends’ catamaran in St. Maarten to participate in the Heineken regatta. Shortly after, in Colorado we took the last ski lift on the afternoon of March 14th and skied all the way down to the village just to learn that the lifts shut down for good. Life has changed for all of us due to the pandemic.
If I dare to complain or compare, I think about my maternal grandmother Oma. She was born on 1921 in Vienna where her dentist's father served as a senator for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was born onto a wealthy family that had large lands along the Danube in an area that belonged to Hungary but now is part of Serbia. She was a single child and her aunt and uncle had no children, so she was the golden daughter bound to inherit vast lands and good fortune. She was bathed in donkey milk, attended boarding school in Switzerland, and spoke many languages. My grandfather who was a dashingly handsome test pilot between the two wars (he wanted to be a doctor, but his father who was a general told him that “doctors are sent to the front and pilots sent to the sky and it’s safer in the sky)”, heard about this beautiful young woman who was considered to be one of the most eligible ladies of those times. So, he decided to end his affair with Magda Gabor, older sister of Zsazsa, who worked at her mom’s custom jewelry store on the corner of Vaci utca (Budapest’s main promenade) and fell in love with my grandmother. Oma remembered her favorite summer just before the war when my grandfather often flew his plane from Budapest down south where my grandmother lived. My grandmother rode the family’s horse-drawn carriage loaded with picnic food including her favorite, a big ripe watermelon to pick up my grandfather where he landed in the fields. She reminisced that they often took their “sweet time” to get home and the “picnic” was always delicious. They were young, happy and they felt they had a wonderful future together.
Then the war came, and everything changed. My grandfather was captured in France, my grandmother and her family were forced to leave their homes and placed in a labor camp by Tito (the communist partisan leader who founded Yugoslavia after the war). Their lands were confiscated. My grandparents found each other after the war, married but had to hide on my great grandfather’s farm; my grandfather was a pilot in the Austro-Hungarian empire and my grandmother was a “Donau Schwaben” (German ethnicity that lived along the Danube) in a communist country under Soviet occupation, so they had to hide their heritage and identity. My mother was born in 1947 in Hungary and she never learned German, her true mother’s tongue, because my grandmother was too afraid if my mom spoke any German, they would have been put away in a labor camp by the secret police. Oma could hardly speak any Hungarian, so she found work as a night nurse at a local children’s hospital. She didn’t have to speak much at night and the little she did was like a child’s language anyhow. She told me one of her main jobs was to carry the tiny corps out to the morgue. My grandfather took odd jobs, mainly in food industry such as in a bakery so he could steal some bread for his family. As soon as they found out who he was, he had to leave and look for another job. Life was hard, life was very different than before the war.
I don’t intend to draw a parallel between the war and our COVID crisis, but just as Peter remembers his father’s words after he returned from 4 years in a Japanese prison camp and reunited with his family: “War is hell, life is not always fair, so get on with it”, I think about my grandmother’s story. I think about what generations before us went through or other nations riddled with conflicts or war still are going through. I think about how resilient we are, how quickly we adapt, and how optimistic we are in our belief that working together will bring a better future.
I have tried hard to stay out of social media virtue signaling, finger pointing and rumor spreading. I am a doctor, so of course I am keen on reading the scientific updates and the ever changing and sometimes confusing landscape of information about this virus. I am extremely proud of my fellow health care workers that are treating COVID patients and I wish I could be there with them to help. As a dermatologist, I didn’t have to go to the frontline in Wisconsin as we didn’t really have a surge here. Most of my work I could conduct via virtual visits from home. I worked at the VA which has been one of the most wonderful and safest working environments I can imagine. All the regattas and events Harken Derm was planning to sponsor have been cancelled. Stores that carry our products have been closed. Sailing, although perfectly fit for social distancing has been banned in a lot of states. People cannot spend much time outdoors, and we have consciously didn’t push advertisement on social media for our sunscreen. Rather, we have been working on educational pieces and future product formulation and development.
Of course, my biggest worry has been Peter and his health and safety. I am so happy that he kept his wife doctor’s advice and stayed home…most of the time. He visits Harken every day wearing a mask because his company and his people are his children who he deeply cares about. Harken joined the “100 million mask challenge”; cutting, pleating and sewing surgical masks that are donated to the hospital I work at. It is a community effort and many members of our local Pewaukee Yacht Club community are helping to fold (using a special jig Harken manufactured) and sew masks. I picked up sewing again after thirty years. My paternal grandmother was a talented hobby seamstress and as a teenager I learned from her and even took a tailoring class. I must have hated my sister back then, because I even sewed her prom dress! Surgical masks come first, but I am looking forward to sewing some Harken Derm gaiters as well. Best sun protection!
I have cooked every dinner since March 17th, except less than a handful take-outs to support our local restaurant. I work hard until 5 PM and then the cooking show starts which gives me joy and relief. So far, I repeated only a couple of favorites like “chicken paprikas” and I still enjoy discovering new recipes no matter how simpler or complex. Sitting down at the dinner table as a family has always been important for us but sitting down every night is a gift. Lot of people are talking about how this crisis brought families closer together, offered some lost time to catch up and slowed down our crazy busy lives filled with constant chasing of more work, more success, more adventures and more activities. For me, the glass is always half full. We all must look at the positives in every challenge, look what we can learn and how we can come out of it as a better person, better family, better community, better nation and better world. Talking about the world, look what staying off the roads did to our earth, she is breathing better again!
I am very fortunate to still have my job and my family and friends are healthy. I know, a lot of others and some of you may be not as fortunate. I felt sharing my personal and family history may bring us closer together. My thoughts are with you and I wish you the best during these trying times from the bottom of my heart.
PS: Please don’t forget your sunscreen once you are allowed to sail again!