Editor’s Note: Submissions are edited for clarity and length. 130 students read Dr. Joan Ferrante’s “How to Respond in a Pandemic” as part of a Health Innovation grant. Dr. Ferrante shared the award-winning essays with The Northerner. These essays detail how students used the book to cope with the pandemic in their lives.
Lesley Daley: Senior nursing major
As an introvert, I was not fazed by the concept of quarantining and social distancing. However, as the year progressed, the daily potential for my loved ones to become ill or to die from this virus took its toll on my mental health. My 81-year-old mother, my friend with stage IV cancer, and my other immunocompromised family and friends are at the forefront of my worry every day. I worried almost constantly that someone would become sick and that I will be the one who caused it.
As a nurse working with COVID-19 patients, I am very conscious that I could bring the virus home and spread it to others. At the beginning of the shutdown, I kept my distance from everyone—aside from quick trips to the grocery. Roughly three months in, I began to visit my mother again, sitting outside, distanced, and with masks. My friends and I have kept in touch with messaging and with virtual movie nights, where we meet online through an app.
Despite all my precautions, there have still been scares. In August, a close friend I visited with in person texted me to say he had been possibly exposed at a small backyard wedding and was now getting tested. My initial reaction was anger, at both his relative laissez-faire reaction and at myself. Here, I was, a health care professional, and I let my guard down. I immediately went to be tested and kept myself quarantined. In the end, everyone was negative for COVID-19, and I relearned a lesson that I thought I already knew.
My last living uncle passed away from COVID-19 on Nov. 9, leaving his wife of 46 years grieving alone in her nursing home because quarantining meant we could not visit her. My sadness over his passing turned to anger once again because he did not have to die this way, and I feel that the absolute lack of a cohesive, national, science-based plan of action is largely to blame for his death, along with the hundreds of thousands of other deaths we saw in our country this year.
Despite my anger and worry, living through this experience has only strengthened my relationships with family and friends. I have a greater appreciation for the time that I do get to spend with them—albeit with masks and distancing. Technology has saved the day in that we are able to remain in touch when we cannot see each other in person. When my uncle passed, we could visit with my aunt using videoconferencing. She was able to virtually attend his inurnment at Camp Nelson National Cemetery due to the kindness and resourcefulness of her nursing home staff. The nurses and physicians who cared for my uncle remained in touch throughout his hospitalization, and, in the end, they were able to allow my mother to visit him as he passed.
My coworkers and I are faced with similar situations every day, and we, too, are always helping people to connect with their loved ones. It is a good feeling to know that you have helped someone in a time of crisis and that, in turn, helps me to cope with what is happening. Overall, I have embraced the changes that the pandemic has brought into my life. My acceptance has been guided by my philosophy of “It is what it is,” and this is now how it is. While we wait for a vaccine to be distributed, we do not have much of a choice but to accept things as they are, work with them as they are, and move on. Despite being a frontline employee, I am also aware of how fortunate I am to remain employed during a state of emergency. I believe stressful as health care can be, particularly now, I prefer that stress over the instability and worry that
There are two discipline-recommended responses featured in How to Respond in a Pandemic that accurately depicts how I responded to the pandemic. First and foremost is English Literature (“Read, Write, Make Meaning”). I have always been a voracious reader, and literature helps me to cope in times of stress and uncertainty. As Wallace states, “When confined to their homes for weeks or months, many people wonder what to do with their time. One way to temporarily escape isolation is to read about the lives of others” (p. 37). I turn to reading for pleasure and escape, and this year was no different. My choices ran the gamut from young adult books to mysteries to horror to a nonfiction book about religion and snake-handling. All these reading selections took my mind off what was happening in the real world and allowed me to escape for a little while.
My second response is humor and storytelling. I would venture to say that memes and funny stories played a significant role in helping all of us cope this year. But, in addition to that, the memes and stories this year provided political and social commentary as well. In “Change the Story, Change What’s Possible” (Cultural Studies), Alberti writes, “Songs (such as national anthems), sayings, memes, and even jokes are types of stories that gain popularity through what they suggest about how power works. If stories express how we believe power works, then they also express how we believe the world operates” (p. 29). Alberti also talks about how stories are powerful, and we can use stories to counter the dominant stories around us when we realize that those stories no longer work or are truthful for everyone.
This was a year of nonstop election coverage and social upheaval. But if there was a positive aspect to the pandemic, I believe it is that we were able to hunker down and truly concentrate on what else was happening around us and then work to try and change what needed changing. Alberti talks about how the Black Lives Matter movement “moved to the center of national attention” and stayed there (p. 31). We have seen just how marginalized some groups of people are once the national emergency was in place. Alberti states, “The pandemic has exposed cracks in old ideas of what normal meant, and especially in all the ways normal proved inadequate to imagining the unimaginable” (p. 31). While I would say I was socially conscious prior to the pandemic, living through this year has grown that consciousness and made it deeper.
The discipline responses that I could add to my repertoire are those from Creative Writing, World Languages, and Music. The Creative Writing response (“Slow Down, Pause, Reflect”) encourages mindfulness: “I challenged myself not to take pictures with my phone. I decided that if I saw something worthy of memory, I would stop, gaze, and create a simile of what I saw to really take in what I was seeing” (Moffett, p. 19). Living in the moment, taking the time to appreciate what is happening and how you feel about it, is both calming and centering—responses that I could really use right now.
The response from World Languages is to “Learn How Another Culture Responds to Crises.” Bo-Kyung Kim Kirby writes, “As adults, we can still learn much about a culture through our own effort, and we can see how language mirrors and supports group versus individual responses to crises. When you know another language, you can critique your own and your culture’s response. You can see there is another way” (p. 103). As I struggle with the overindulged individualistic attitude of my own culture, I can take a page from the playbooks of other cultures and see how they manage to live through an emergent situation.
From the discipline of Music, I can learn how to use music as therapy as well as entertainment: “Music and other creative art therapies allow emotions to surface slowly, giving the left brain the time and ability to process trauma and grief into a narrative, thus allowing the subject to move toward acceptance” (Vest, p. 67).
I do believe that this assignment has helped me to find ways in which to respond to the pandemic that will keep me healthy as well as protect the communities in which I live, work, and go to school. Adding to my personal coping techniques based on the disciplines of Creative Writing, World Languages, and Music are certainly welcome and needed, but I would argue that learning more about how marginalized people are living through this event has been the most impactful piece for me. Inequalities in health care and in every aspect of our social and political fabric are laid bare when there is a crisis. Besides needing to address those inequalities, we need to realize that injustice affects every one of us, marginalized or not. We have seen firsthand how our personal actions impact others during this pandemic. “I am because we are, and since we are I am” is the perfect, concise sentence to frame the situation in which we find ourselves currently living (Frimpong-Mansoh, p. 75). writes: “Our humanity is interlinked, and we survive and thrive on the shoulders of one another, in mutual support. The call to action is to become humanitarians, not only in times of crisis. This call includes embracing the wisdom in a system of distributive justice, one that uplifts the vulnerable and the least advantaged in our communities.” (p. 75).
Economist Linda Dynan writes in “Behave As If You Are Contagious”: Who gets an ICU bed? Who gets personal protective equipment? Who can visit their sick or dying relatives? What about people not infected with the coronavirus who require emergency care? This frightening situation illustrates vividly how private actions and societal well-being must meet. (p. 53) Dynan illustrates how fragile our health care system inherently is and emphasizes the need for behavioral changes in how we care for ourselves and how we move around in the community in order to protect our health care resources
Reading each unique response in Ferrante and Caldeira’s book has shown me how every discipline has a part to play in responding to, surviving, and even thriving, in a pandemic. We expect responses from health care, biology, math, and politics because a virus directly impacts their wheelhouses. But the visual arts, literature, or film studies? How are they involved? Reading each discipline’s response has made clear that there is more than one way to look at a problem such as a pandemic. What is universal, though, is that every discipline, in its unique way, provides hope and a positive outlook in an otherwise bleak situation.