A Drowning Dream
Laura Hillenbrand ’89 H’03 shares her experience contracting COVID-19.
In March and early April, as essential workers fought at the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic and others flattened the curve by sheltering in place, we asked more than 50 Kenyon alumni what it felt like to be in their shoes at that moment.
Story by Erin Peterson | Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
Camila Odio ’11, a hospitalist physician at Yale-New Haven Hospital, is slated to start an Infectious Disease Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this summer.
I am so grateful that all my years of training have allowed me to contribute to my community in this way. My optimism is kindled daily by the teamwork I witness between doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, physician’s assistants on the clinical side, and scientists, research coordinators and medical students on the investigative side. The best parts of humanity are highlighted when we work together.
Benjamin Helfat ’03 is principal of Boston Adult Technical Academy.
My wife and I had our first child, Lucy, in September. A six-month-old needs constant attention and doesn’t care if you’re talking to the superintendent of schools! We take social distancing very seriously, and it’s been hard not to include our parents in Lucy’s early months. We’ve taught the grandparents how to Zoom and FaceTime, and thankfully Lucy is great on camera. We even did our Passover seder on Zoom; it wasn’t the same, but we’re thankful and proud that our family is being prudent, safe and responsible.
Jon Meredith ’94 is the middle school director at Durham Academy in Durham, North Carolina.
The anxiety that this virus generates has penetrated my usually-optimistic persona. I’m not sleeping as well as I usually do. My 17-year-old daughter has asthma and when she spiked a fever last week, I’m not sure I was ever as terrified. She is fine, thank God.
Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 is vice president for student affairs at Kenyon College.
Closing down a residential campus was an emotionally fraught, intense process filled with complex and weighty decisions amid great uncertainty. In the aftermath, I needed to focus on my family, and perhaps on giving myself some grace, too.
As we have settled into a “pandemic normal,” we seem to be tapping into our humanity a little bit more. When all of this is over, I feel hopeful that all of us will be more intentional about checking in and supporting one another.
Jenna Walker ’04 is a copy editor at Bocconi University in Milan.
For generations writers have woven narratives around plagues and pandemics. In times of uncertainty, it’s comforting to remember that the human condition has remained largely unchanged, and studying literature throughout the years is proof of that. Wealthy people escaping disease-ridden cities to isolate and entertain themselves were described by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1340s; the same topic also inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s allegorical “Masque of the Red Death” in 1842. There are several similarities between Alessandro Manzoni’s depiction (in “The Betrothed”) of the 17th-century plague in northern Italy and today’s coronavirus pandemic, including an initial denial of the situation and distrust of experts, fake news circulating on the origins of the epidemic, deserted city streets and quarantine restrictions, just to name a few. And Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” is a good reminder that, with scientific progress, a disease that was so prevalent more than a century ago is now rare in many parts of the world.
Julia Griner ’90 is co-owner of Grano & Farina Cooking School in Rome.
We don’t have those issues here.
Kip Williams ’89 is staff chaplain at IUH Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
I work in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (ICU) at Methodist. This is a very busy ICU that provides the highest and most complex kinds of life support available. Every winter, we get influenza patients who have to be placed on life support. I am used to a seasonal increase in the acuity, complexity, morbidity and mortality of patients. But this is now happening in every ICU at Methodist.
There were a few moments that stood out to me in March: When my director was on vacation and we realized that he might not be able to fly home. When an emergency physician asked me, “Eric, how am I going to decide who gets a ventilator?” When a veteran emergency nurse said, “You need to pray for us every day.”
What is new? I provide spiritual care to family members on the phone. I provide more spiritual care to the medical staff than I have in the past, maybe twice as much. I spend more time in operational planning meetings addressing questions such as, ‘What are the options if our morgue is full?’
To the question, “What can you do with a philosophy major?” My answer is, “I am doing it right now.”
I am calling on my knowledge of ethics, religion and history every day. I am telling my medical colleagues things that help them hold on to the “bigger frames” of culture in making sense of this crisis.
My hope is that this crisis will teach us to be more compassionate.
Erin Schaff ’11 is a staff photographer for the New York Times in Washington, D.C.
I’m still going out everyday to cover the coronavirus pandemic and politics. It was an adjustment to learn how to properly wear personal protective equipment and find ways to connect with people I’m photographing when they can’t see my face behind a mask, but it’s getting easier with time.
Pictured: Schaff has her temperature taken backstage before attending a press briefing on COVID-19 by President Donald Trump.
Pictured: New York Times correspondent Sheri Fink captured Schaff photographing hospital workers in New York City, right after COVID-19 cases peaked there in May.
Jamal Jordan ’12 is a digital storytelling editor for the New York Times and a multimedia documentarian. His book “Queer Love in Color” will be released next year.
I was getting daily news updates of the emerging crisis back when this was just a mysterious illness infecting a few people in Wuhan, China, in 2019.
The Times was ahead of the curve in encouraging people to work from home. In early March, we were sent an all-company email that described the upcoming ordeal as “one of the greatest crises of a generation,” which was the first time I realized that things were about to change, and quickly.
I was already a huge fan of telework before the onset of the crisis, but it’s been fascinating to see my colleagues become more comfortable with our digital tools and realize that some of them have made our work processes a lot easier.
I’m noticing a lot more emotional check-ins and general intention and clarity around the ways people speak to each other. I find a lot of personal gratification through accomplishment and productivity, and being forced to slow down the daily rhythms of life has left me thinking of the things I value most.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins ’83 is a reporter for the Associated Press who lives in Columbus, Ohio.
I focus on legal affairs as a reporter, but I cover a little bit of everything, from politics to entertainment. That’s been consistent in my career all the way back to the Collegian.
From the time I log onto my work accounts in my home office until I leave downtown after the (governor’s) daily briefing, it’s all coronavirus, all the time.
The universal impact of the pandemic surpasses even the aftermath of 9/11 when it comes to my day-to-day and week-by-week reporting responsibilities. Nothing else has come close in 30-plus years as a journalist.
Anna Watts ’14 is a documentary photographer and videographer based in New York.
As months of lockdown have dragged on and publications suffer financial losses, freelancers like myself have lost most of our income. Like so many of my peers, I feel a lot of anxiety about the future in and out of this industry and question how I can best continue to make meaningful work about this moment without placing anyone at undue risk. With so much grief in the world, creativity has been challenging, but ultimately I feel incredibly grateful to have my health and (virtual) communities during this time.
Pictured: Watts documented Junior Elite gymnast Annalise “Tiger” Newman-Achee, 14, for ESPN, as she adapted her intenstive training schedule into a home-based routine without a gym, coaches or equipment. Gymnasts like Newman-Achee, Watts, noted, “are competing against the backdrop of a contemporary moment that has spotlighted girls’ safety and vulnerability in athletics, and placed women center stage in a fight for recognition and equal pay. With the COVID-19 pandemic, their training has taken another uncharted turn.”
Jack Killen ’71 is a retired physician-scientist residing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
I spent my career in research at the National Institutes of Health. I was deputy director and then director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It has been a marvel watching my former boss, Tony Fauci, lead the nation through the coronavirus crisis. His leadership style and scientific rigor, honed in the early HIV/AIDS years, are legendary. It is beyond good fortune that he is there — still — at the center of the country’s response to infectious diseases, offering the very best scientific advice he can, to any and all.
One thing I hope we all remember when we come out the other side of this catastrophe is that Tony also represents an army of other public servants whose technical expertise in their own fields and commitment to the public good, regardless of political or ideological orientation, match his. I know this for a fact, having been there and worked with thousands of them over the course of my career.
On March 13, I came down with what turned out to be a mild-moderate case of COVID-19, confirmed by a positive test. The same day two friends were admitted to the hospital. Both ended up on ventilators in the ICU. One died several days later. The other finally came off the ventilator after two weeks and is now recovering.
I was luckier. I spent two weeks sick and incredibly exhausted before I turned the corner. I feel well now. Hopefully I am now immune and contributing my part to herd immunity if and when there are subsequent waves of infection. But we’ll have to wait and see as science unravels the many unknowns about the biology of the disease.
Many times every day, my husband, Fred, and I are reminded of our experience as gay men in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Like then, death, fear, deep uncertainty, unanswerable questions and constantly changing information are all around. This time, however, it’s everyone in the country who is affected. We learned a lot back then about the meaning and vital importance of community, channeling our anxiety, grief and anger into action, and adapting to new scientific findings. We can all do that again if we try.
Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings ’93 is the vice president for finance and administration at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
I am the daughter of a loving mother living with Alzheimer’s disease. The first emotional jolt of this season came when I went to visit my mother at her retirement community, Kendal at Oberlin. As I entered the lobby of her building, I was greeted by a staff member who, while screening visitors, shared the latest directive from Governor Mike DeWine to protect those in care facilities: This would be my last in-person visit with my mother until a future, unknown date. The emotion of a daughter who already felt she was not visiting enough was released in tears. This has been my hardest moment.”
Whitney Brown ’04 is an associate veterinarian at Clover Valley Veterinary Service and owner of Full Circle Veterinary Services in Bremerton, Washington.
I was at a home euthanasia appointment before actual social distancing was put into place. It occurred to me driving home that I would not be able to continue to practice and see appointments if things progressed, which of course they have.
We have switched to curbside service where pet owners stay in their vehicles. Our technicians come and receive the pet, we perform our exam, diagnostics and treatment in the clinic, then we return the pet to the owner and discuss our findings using social distancing practices. We use telemedicine where appropriate, but it is challenging when your patient can’t tell you what is wrong and you can’t perform a standard exam and are limited to pictures or video.
Jessica Brown ’88 is principal of Julia R. Masterman School in Philadelphia.
I remember closing the school on a Friday and thinking that this COVID-19 situation was temporary. When we were charged with distributing computers three weeks after the school closure, Philadelphia was running into one of the most vulnerable times of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order was in full effect, with the apex approaching.
My staff developed a safe plan to distribute computers in our parking lot, taking all of the precautions necessary. Staff volunteered to call hundreds of families and work on the action plan. The discussion was bold, and everyone chimed in with ideas.
In the time of crisis, people come together. This has drawn many of us closer.
Lauren Keiling ’08 is the director of strategic insights at ESPN in New York.
Using various data sources, we now analyze the new ways in which people are getting their news and entertainment across TV, radio/podcasts, streaming, web and app. Given that many Americans are now in their homes for longer periods of the day, it is fascinating how time allocation has shifted. As an example, Americans are spending an additional hour in front of their TV screen per day. We are now asking fans how we can best serve them during this time and help maintain the sense of community and connection that is inherent to sport.
Amy Stevens ’94, of Columbus, Ohio, is vice president of the Health Policy Institute of Ohio (HPIO). Much of my time is devoted to reviewing research evidence and translating it into actionable information for Ohio policymakers (legislators and state agency leaders), our primary audience.
Some days are “All-COVID” days, where I spend at least eight hours reading journal articles, media stories, government websites; summarizing what I find; and discussing it with colleagues. On some days I also do media interviews or reply to media questions via email on the public health response to COVID-19. It’s tough to focus on other topics when the stream of information about the virus is constant. Advice from mental health experts is to limit your media consumption, but I can’t look away.
I started a new cleaning regimen each morning where I go around and sanitize all the high-touch surfaces in our house, like the fridge door and the kitchen faucet handle and light switches. As I do this, I feel the futility of battling an invisible foe. Is the virus here? I have no idea. Am I killing it? Not sure.
Scott Pickett ’95 owns and runs Best Friends Mobile Veterinary Clinic in Asheville, North Carolina.
But I act as if everyone has been exposed.
Hugh Forrest ’84 is chief programming officer for South by Southwest, a conference and festival in Austin, Texas.
I oversee a staff of about 50 people who curate, create, manage and execute all the conference and festival content for South by Southwest (SXSW) 2020, which was scheduled to begin on March 13. I think it was about March 1 that it became obvious how quickly the virus was moving in the U.S. — and that there was really no way that the event could happen this year. At that point, my reaction was grief.
My team had worked so hard for the last 10 months putting together this year’s event. And to have all that work fall apart so quickly was devastating. But it would have been even more devastating to Austin and to the world had the event taken place — and if the city had become a hot spot as a result.
I am only beginning to come out of the shock of all this, but there was a big bloom of creativity (particularly in the technology and startup sector) a few years after 9/11. I’m betting that we’ll see similar results on the other side of this COVID-19 crisis.
Christopher E. Bonacci ’88 is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who has a private practice in Vienna, Virginia.
As an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who trained in New York City at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, infection control is something (this community of professionals does) better than anyone. We are a high-risk profession for transmittable disease and, already, the first oral surgeon has died of COVID-19.
I have no money coming in. Zero. I’m insured against everything except a pandemic. That is the risk we take as small business owners. I never imagined that after a life of doing everything by the book I could be financially wiped out in a few months.
I’m grateful for government support to keep my business open and my staff and their families safe for a couple more months. We, the world, are all in this together as we create a new beginning.
AJ Reid ’19 is a freelance videographer, photographer, graphic artist and production assistant for TV and events in Miami.
When did I know things had changed? I was gearing up to film a promotional video for a local after-school program when the program director sent me an email informing me that the school was suspended indefinitely due to COVID-19. That same day, a big gala I was booked to work on was canceled.
Soon after realizing I was out of work, I decided to call on my visual arts background. I enjoy drawing faces, so I had the idea of doing portrait illustrations for anyone interested in commissioning them. A highly personalized piece of art can be a powerful thing for someone to own and identify with, especially in a time of isolation. So as an artist, I feel a responsibility to bring joy to people who want to see themselves or their loved ones in a new (and colorful) light.
Elizabeth Stanton ’07 is a director of professional practice and the magnet program at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, Colorado.
A challenge that (many of us) are facing right now is the anticipated patient surge. There will be a shortage of nurses — especially critical-care nurses — to care for patients. There’s also the anticipated shortage of resources.
To prevent that environment from becoming really chaotic, every hospital has a plan to care for these patients if that number overwhelmed their hospital. This is something that Seattle and New York have encountered. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work there right now. We have to have a plan in place to be mindful about how we would manage that.
My team and I have been asked to review the literature to find out the safest staffing model to provide care in an area of limited resources. We haven’t experienced the surge yet, but thinking of that model of care was hard. It’s so different from the way anyone who is alive in health care right now — who hasn’t worked in a crisis — would think about it.
It feels so frustrating that our country is in a position where we have limited resources. But having a good plan is the way you provide helpful, safe care.
Paige Yang ’09 is a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine in Kailua, Hawaii.
I still have close friends in China from my time studying abroad while at Kenyon. I got in touch with them once the hospital was built almost overnight in Wuhan. They shared the severity and fear they had based on how quickly things were spreading. I was also doing business with some manufacturers in China at the time, and they got shut down.
Once they got shut down they started sending me photos of themselves in isolation with masks on, grocery shopping in gloves, hats and masks, and stories of taking temperatures in order to enter stores and buildings. They also said people were getting fined for being outside, and one even shared that they weren’t sure if they had enough rice.
When I heard that I began feeling scared.
Linda Slanec Higgins ’84 is senior vice president of research and external innovation at Gilead Sciences in Foster City, California.
The moment that stands out in my mind is a discussion I was having the first week of February with Dr. John Mellors, our longtime Gilead friend and advisor, a well-known infectious disease physician-scientist and a luminary of the HIV world. John said there was evidence of COVID transmission by asymptomatic people.
That hit me like a blow to the chest.
I don’t remember whether he or I said, “Then a pandemic is inevitable. It’s a question of when, not if.” I didn’t really hear anything after that. We were no longer dealing with scenarios or what if or could be, but a Huge Reality crashing down. This is not a drill.
That moment was a conversion from intellectual to an emotional response. It felt real, and the implications felt very real. Not “outbreak” but “pandemic.” After that comes endemic? What does that look like? How long till we get to “after?” I suppose I did all the normal things the rest of the day, and in the days after, but in my head I was processing furiously.
Drug discovery and development require major teamwork. Good working relationships are essential. I spent most of my day doing this in person and running around campus, or the world, getting from one meeting to the next. Now I’m talking to people all day every day on Zoom.
Collaborations and consortiums are proliferating to beat the virus, unencumbered by competitive, economic and regulatory considerations of normal times. The pace is amazing. Keeping up when the context is changing and there is no road map is challenging.
When so much is changing, the need to be intentional about Doing the Right Thing is intense. We are defining our future through our actions now. This is an incredible motivator. The people I see in my personal and professional life doing inspirational things, small and large, give me optimism.
Laura Hillenbrand ’89 H’03 shares her experience contracting COVID-19.
A documentary photo series by Ally Schmaling '14 celebrates queer personhood, chosen family and community resiliency amid the coronavirus pandemic.