From medical school, through residency and with 27 years of research funded through the National Institutes of Health, I’ve been blessed with exciting opportunities to learn: understanding the marvels of the human body and exploring ways to bring healing. God’s creation, of course, is infinite, so I keep on learning. Recently, learning from undergraduate students stuck in isolation because of COVID-19, I’ve found refreshing lessons – lessons about what Dr. Deborah L. Birx calls “our community: our responsibility.”
Back in January, when I followed God’s call to leave the academic/medical field and become president of Palm Beach Atlantic University, I never dreamed how useful my past experience would be. But later, with the challenges of COVID-19, I thanked God for that medical background, as I worked with a dedicated team to open our campus for safe, in-person learning.
We saw God’s gracious provision everywhere:
— Medical health experts on PBA’s faculty and staff helped us stay well informed of best practices.
— A generous donor provided thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer.
— Our new, eight-story student residence freed up rooms in other facilities for quarantine as needed.
We successfully opened the campus for the fall semester, and when the time came, those freed-up rooms were dubbed COVID Camp as a small number of students secluded themselves there. After testing positive or showing signs for COVID-19, those students stayed put, “attending” their classes online and eating meals delivered to the doorstep of their temporary private rooms. Our Residence Life staff kept close tabs on these students, but I wanted to walk alongside them virtually, so every night during their isolation I joined the group on a Zoom call.
As so often is the case, when you reach out to encourage or bless someone, you get blessed and encouraged yourself. That’s what happened to me amidst those students. Let me share some of what two students told me about their COVID Camp experience.
“The first day when you’re in quarantine, you’re kind of relieved, almost,” said Pablo Castillo, a management major from Georgia. But then, he acknowledged, “it gets pretty tough” as feelings of uncertainty and being alone sink in.
“Honestly, the 5 p.m. calls were very relieving, very comforting, because you would get to see other people who were going through the same exact thing,” Pablo said. “So I was like, man, 5 p.m. Can’t wait to see people!”
Pablo found it quite a blessing to talk and pray with COVID campers and other friends, and to think, OK; someone’s praying for me. Somebody has my back.
Tabitha Maher, from Jupiter, Florida, also appreciated the Zoom calls and the calls from family, friends “and a bunch of my professors to make sure I was OK.” She is a music major, and she blessed us on Zoom with her singing.
As I fellowshipped with Tabitha, Pablo and their COVID Camp comrades, I marveled at their spirit. In this awkward, scary, inconvenient time, these young people were not complaining; they were enjoying community.
Later, as I considered my privilege to share in those very special Zoom appointments, I thought about the purpose of isolation or quarantine. Of course, it’s not for the benefit of the isolated person. Rather, it benefits and protects the rest of the community – those people who have not been exposed to COVID-19. Our COVID Camp students served others by submitting to a lonely time of isolation. When we wear face coverings and observe physical distancing, we provide a similar service to those around us, though a much less challenging sort of service.
Special virtual guest
Last month at Palm Beach Atlantic Dr. Deborah L. Birx paid us a virtual visit, and she sang the praises of the college students who are taking seriously these precautions against the coronavirus.
Dr. Birx, of course, is the scarf-wearing medical expert from the office of the vice president, serving as the nation’s coronavirus response coordinator. She was a special virtual guest of the LeMieux Center for Public Policy at PBA, joining me and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux for a conversation about COVID-19.
She talked about how COVID can spread from people who have the virus but don’t know it, because they don’t have symptoms. Understanding that danger, she said, “We’re continuing to ask every American to take the precaution of wearing a mask, physically distancing and doing their hygiene.”
You’ve likely seen earlier reports of some partying college students who ignored those precautions, but Dr. Birx has visited campuses and found schools like Palm Beach Atlantic, where students are “masking up,” protecting their community. We need to learn from these students, she said.
I’m thankful for the responsible, motivated students at PBA, including my young friends who served in COVID Camp. I sense a spiritual side of their motivation, expressed in the second chapter of the Book of Philippians. There the Apostle Paul urges us to follow Christ’s mindset: to serve others because we view their needs as more important than our own.
Understanding the special needs of the vulnerable in our community, in the weeks and months ahead, let’s not fall victim to coronavirus “safety fatigue.” Let’s put up with the minor inconvenience of masks and distancing, knowing that we potentially save lives as we serve others in this way. As Dr. Birx would say, Our community: our responsibility.
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University (www.pba.edu). A physician, researcher and innovator, she began her role as university president on May 4, 2020.