Dating While Immunocompromised

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Asal Ehsanipour and her boyfriend Larry Jerome have been sheltering in place separately. Jerome has a compromised immune system, which puts him more at risk of contracting COVID-19. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Like a lot of couples, my relationship has changed a lot over the past few weeks. The Bay Area's shelter-in-place orders means my boyfriend and I have to figure out this whole "long distance" thing for the first time. No easy feat.

I can still remember the exact moment I met my boyfriend, Larry Jerome, on our first date a little over two years ago. He was waiting for me at a corner table under a string of lights at a bar in San Francisco. President Trump’s first State of the Union was playing in the background. We talked about politics, podcasts and our grandparents. Our first conversation was so easy, I remember thinking: “I could probably talk to this guy forever.”

Asal and Larry have been dating for over two years. (Asal Ehsanipour/KQED)

Larry and I had been dating for a few weeks when he told me about his Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammatory illness where the body attacks itself. Larry was diagnosed at age 15 and spent the next few months in and out of hospitals, sometimes for weeks on end.

"It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever gone through," says Larry. "I got really, really sick. I couldn’t eat. I lost 20 pounds. I was in a lot of pain. I ended up missing the last month of school. I knew that I was really sick, but I didn't really realize how sick."

Luckily, Larry is now in remission thanks to the Remicade infusion he gets every eight weeks. But the medicine also suppresses his immune system, which increases his likelihood of getting sick. Something as simple as catching a cold could cause a flare up that lands him in the hospital. It's a possibility that's always there, looming beneath the surface.

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"It feels like when you're in school and you have a big test coming up that you might fail and all of the repercussions that would come from that," explains Larry. "It’s like feeling that all the time."

He says that feeling got worse as the coronavirus started spreading around California.

"It’s multiplying my base level fear that I'm gonna get sick," says Larry. "Being immunocompromised makes me so much more susceptible. The prospect of me going into a hospital right now is probably more anxiety inducing than normal."

That anxiety he feels — I feel it, too. I live with a hospital nurse. She thinks she’s probably been exposed, which means I’ve probably been exposed. As a result, I don’t want to go anywhere near Larry. Since the outbreak, every single day has been an exercise in controlling my imagination. I try my best not to picture him in a hospital, or hooked up to a ventilator.

As case numbers started to rise, I decided to pack a bag with the essentials. I left my San Francisco apartment, and I’m now staying in an isolated room at my parents house, away from them and miles away from Larry.

Asal and her boyfriend Larry FaceTime often in order to keep in touch. (Asal Ehsanipour/KQED)

"It's a really big adjustment having our relationship totally exist over phone calls," he says. "We’ve been talking what, three times a day?"

I agree it's a lot, but the stakes in our relationship feel higher.

"There’s a lot more fear," I tell him. "And I think we need more from each other. We need a sense of safety when things feel hard, which is often."

Larry agrees with that sentiment.

"That’s something that’s been hard for us," he says. "I feel like we have to actively try to find things to talk about [besides coronavirus]. So I’m super glad you’re watching Tiger King so we can just talk about that all the time!"

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Staying connected isn’t always easy. There are days when loving each other feels quieter, more subtle. Where I’m just trying to encourage him to catch up on sleep, get some exercise. Where he’s just giving me space to process my grief over the state of the world.

My first week here, he sent me and my family chocolates. And my parents reciprocated with a care package of their own.

"[They got me] a giant bag of pistachios, it's got to be at least 10 pounds," he says. "And also a huge bag of dried dates. This is the most Persian thing I can think of."

In peak cheesiness — so cheesy I’m almost too embarrassed to write it — Larry sends me really cute GIFs most mornings of baby goats and a toddler playing fetch with corgis.

Last week, I sent Larry my favorite Bill Withers songs, and later asked him which song "feels the most like us."

"I feel like ‘Ain’t No Sunshine' feels like us right now," he says. "Because it’s about a guy who’s sad when the woman he loves is gone or far away."

I also ask Larry what I could be doing to better support him right now.

"The best thing is just talking to you," he says.

"That’s probably the worst thing about all of this — that I can’t see you. And just not knowing when I’m going to be able to see you again. Having you here would be so much better."

It feels ironic that staying in quarantine to protect Larry means I don’t get to be with Larry. And I want to be with him because he makes me feel better when the world is falling apart.