Coping With COVID-19: Thoughts From the Other Side

Larry Braskamp offers his perspective on being infected with the coronavirus and offers suggestions for how to help others in academe who are struggling through it.

August 3, 2020
 
 
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As colleges and universities prepare to open up this fall, they face almost insurmountable challenges. The situation is so fluid, uncertain, unpredictable and complicated that any current operational and procedural plan can still change daily. In my career, I’ve held leadership positions (dean, provost and president) at five different universities in overseeing and administering the work life of faculty and staff, but I’ve never had to confront the challenges brought by COVID-19.

In this article, I offer a perspective from the other side: as one who has been infected by COVID-19.

I was shocked when I got the virus in late May, as my wife and I had been very cautious given our age and her pre-existing health condition. I have no idea how I got it. During my 29-day quarantine, I was for the most part confined to our bedroom in our apartment in Chicago with a beautiful view of Lake Michigan. My wife provided me with food, leaving meals on a tray outside my door, and we communicated by phone during this time. I received all my treatments by telemedicine, except for the four times I walked six blocks to the hospital’s COVID-19 testing site.

Every morning, I had to complete a survey for the hospital in which I indicated the degree to which I had a fever, a cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle aches, trouble sleeping, lack of energy, felt ill, diarrhea or stomach pain. I had no energy at the beginning and mostly focused on my survival, just taking one day at a time. Since I had only a slight fever, I was judged to have a mild case. But a month before I tested positive, I had begun to experience a constant light-headedness that stayed with me throughout my quarantine. Weeks later, it has still not completely gone away.

My responses to three questions on the hospital survey best describe my mental health during this time: I worry that the infection will get worse; I worry about spreading my infection; I feel overwhelmed by my condition. They capture my emotional stress, which I have learned is common for those who’ve been infected.

I feared that my condition would get worse and I would land up in the hospital on a ventilator, especially during the first two weeks. I also worried about my wife getting the virus, since she has a pre-existing health condition. And, again particularly at the beginning, I felt overwhelmed and had moments of utter despair and complete hopelessness. My physical isolation and anxiety over the uncertainty and unpredictability of the virus had a multiplier effect. The treatment offered by the experts of “just wait it out” was not comforting.

I took to writing self-reflections -- usually from 1 to 3 a.m. -- to better discern the purpose and meaning in my life and future. My reflections were raw, terribly inarticulate and grossly inadequate in describing my feelings and thinking. But the mere writing of them gave me some peace and insights. I wrote that the grace of God was central to my faith perspective.

What especially gave me meaning was knowing that my family and friends were thinking of me. It provided comfort, strength and the motivation to endure through my uncertain, unpredictable and uncontrollable future. The daily thoughts and prayers of family and friends expressed in emails, cards, phone calls and Zoom meetings were immensely important to my well-being, resilience and hope for the future. As I write this now in my “freedom” of several weeks, I am still trying to comprehend why I had a mild case, but I am deeply thankful that I did. I didn’t go to the hospital. I am alive and well. I can play tennis again.

Suggestions for Colleges and Universities

I offer some suggestions to institutional leaders based on my experience of being on the other side. I have tried to think of what would be helpful if I were still responsible for the work life of faculty members. Some suggestions also pertain to administrators and staff. And some are also relevant to people with any serious illness, such as cancer or heart issues.

Recognize and support faculty members with COVID-19. During this time away from their professional duties, faculty afflicted with the virus may focus more than usual on their personal well-being and not on their professional identity and aspirations. They could be too tired to be concerned about their academic achievement and responsibilities. They will no doubt experience fatigue, loneliness and anxiety, and even become overwhelmed at times.

Communicate frequently with the faculty members and, when appropriate, with their caregivers. The power of people cannot be overestimated. Communication -- emails, notes, Zooming, telephone calls -- makes the battle more personal, which can benefit everyone in understanding and showing empathy. The families and immediate caregivers during this time should also not be forgotten. They worry about getting infected, and they are often in quarantine themselves. The privacy of those infected or those feeling isolated because of the virus and the local institutional guidelines must be considered in your communications.

Help faculty to accept loss in the way they may be engaged in their academic life going forward. A focus on getting back to normal as soon as possible is not a useful mind-set, especially for those infected. When I walked to my office at Elmhurst University every day as its interim president, I passed the statue of Reinhold Niebuhr, a graduate. These words are engraved on it: “God, give me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” I offer this advice for this time.

Assist faculty in their re-entry into their work life. Going back is more than flipping a switch. Previously infected faculty members may experience aftereffects, such as damage to their heart, liver, lungs and neurological system. Will faculty who are infected continue to wonder if there is cognitive damage, not yet visible?

People often recover from COVID-19 more slowly in their energy and interest than they expected. Many faculty members may have heightened sensitivity about even going back to a place that requires face-to-face interactions. They may want to stay and work at home. Doctors suggest that people who have had the virus should continue to be careful. Immunity may be short-lived.

People who’ve had COVID-19 may also change their goals for both the short and long run. They may experience a new tension about meeting the institutional standards for tenure and promotion and in their expectations about their career and personal life. Has the balance changed? The transition from the pre-COVID-19 era to the current one, already difficult for all faculty members, has just become more acute for those who were infected.

Develop contingency plans. How will the ill faculty member’s responsibilities, especially those involving teaching, be covered during their absence and recovery? Will faculty colleagues, adjuncts or graduate students be available in an emergency? Students will want to know and be assured that their courses will be covered.

Meanwhile, faculty colleagues not yet infected may have new concerns and anxiety about their own lives. They may start to wonder, “Am I next?” “Do I want to reconsider teaching and attending committee meetings on the campus in the future?”

In sum, COVID-19 has just handed higher education another challenge and opportunity. It includes a faculty development issue not just for those infected but for the entire academy. What are the expectations of faculty moving forward? How do they want to contribute to the goals and purpose of higher education in the future? Intentional dialogues with faculty about COVID-19 and its lingering impact may provide some insights for you and your institution.

Bio

Larry A. Braskamp is president of the Global Perspective Institute.

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