My name is Ibrahim Rashid, and I’m a master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy. I’m 24 and contracted COVID six months ago. I had no pre-existing conditions, did my annual check-up, and am an avid skateboarder, martial artist, and guitarist who loves life.
COVID sent me to the emergency room, damaged my heart, and forced me to study part-time to focus on healing this quarter. I am a long-hauler whose symptoms include brain fog, intense fatigue, sleepless nights, difficulty breathing, and poor decision-making.
The University does an excellent job of supporting you when you have COVID. They send you care packages, have nurses contact you every day, set aside student housing, etc. There is no guidance, however, for recovery after your quarantine is done. After 14 days, you just wake up and stop getting calls from the administration and are left to figure out how to resume normal life on your own.
In the face of the largest COVID-19 cluster seen on campus, spurred possibly by the B.1.1.7 variant, the University must be proactive in ensuring that students receive the aftercare that they need. This can be achieved through three steps:
- Fully fund a COVID support group at Mental and Behavioral Health Services through the Student Services Fee. UChicago Med once ran a grief support group during the start of the pandemic that is now inactive.
- Require contact tracers and nurses to inform COVID-patients of the possibility of long-haul COVID. At the end of quarantine, the contact tracer/nurse should provide a guide that outlines what long-haul COVID could look like, and the resources and strategies available to students. They can borrow from the advice I share below. Special emphasis should be given to seeking disability accommodations, managing energy, getting rest, refraining from cardio exercise, utilizing Student Wellness’ mindfulness or counseling resources, and UChicago Medicine’s post-COVID clinic.
- Educate academic advisors and faculty about long-haul COVID. Faculty and advisors already know when their students contract the virus. They need to be told that the symptoms can take a long time to abate, so that faculty can be receptive to requests for accommodations, and advisors can be empowered to holistically support their students.
By following these steps, our University community can overcome this cluster, prepare to heal, and put this virus behind us. Until then, I’ve produced a non-exhaustive list of what I’ve learned about rebuilding amidst long-haul COVID that I hope can be a guide to anyone struggling:
- Always ask yourself, are your needs being met? We are conditioned to never define our needs. The book “Speak Peace in a World of Pain” helped me understand how my unmet needs were causing pain. I learned that I needed rest, love, meaningful work, and joy, and accordingly decided to study part-time, live with my sister in California, spend my days skateboarding, and start a new job with a community bank.
- Let go of people who don’t meet your needs. My recovery is my priority and I have had to let go of several friendships as a result. I either told them that I never wanted to talk to them again, or that they wouldn’t be a part of my recovery and won’t hear from me for a while. Friendship is a choice. And I had to choose to let go of those who weren’t meeting my needs.
- Surround yourself with love and joy. In understanding my needs, I had to ask myself,What do I need to feel joy, and whole again? I’ve since reconnected with old friends, told them that I want to re-energize our friendship, and scheduled monthly calls. I got my first tattoo. I bought a bunch of lightsabers that I love swinging around. I have made a conscious effort to always tell people that I love them. To get love, you must give it.
- Get help! I have weekly check-ins with my academic advisor, who helps me plan my calendar and advocate for me to get extensions on my assignments. My friends help me catch up on the many problem sets and lectures I’ve missed and make me laugh. My therapist at Behavioral Health helps me find strength and clarity in my pain. Student Disability Services helped me get the accommodations needed to manage my coursework (their intake form has a specific section for COVID-19 related disabilities). The facilities staff at the Keller Center have consistently shown me warmth and given me a space where I can rest and get my best work done. You do not have to suffer alone. Get help. Without these people, I would have dropped out of grad school.
- Love and forgive yourself. I missed a month of school during fall and winter quarter. I hated myself for having to cram a month’s worth of school during finals and barely doing any of my readings. I hated myself for spiraling, for only eating McDonald’s for a week out of self-pity. This self-hatred was destroying me and prolonging my recovery. I had to accept what had happened, forgive myself, and move on.
- Do what is essential and replenishing. Since contracting COVID, for every hour of work, I’ve needed two hours of rest. I am no longer wedded to the volume of my to-do list. Instead, I work based on whether it advances my professional goals and replenishes me. This has meant prioritizing my job search and consulting work and being okay just passing my courses. The “Law of Fuck Yes or No” was designed for dating but applies to choosing what to spend time on as well.
- Listen to your body and act fast. I experience “crashes,” where my lungs give out, I can’t breathe, my head starts hurting, and I need to sleep for several hours. Through a lot of painful trial and error, I now have some clarity on what triggers these crashes. This has resulted in me leaving stressful situations, rescheduling interviews, and informing clients during presentations that I need to talk slow to manage my breath. Listen to your body. Do not tough out a situation. Do not people please. Do what you need to do to manage your energy.
- Understand your suffering. I’m a minority studying policy, trying to create a better world. People like me are fueled and defined by our pain. Getting COVID, watching people die, and seeing the world burn lit a fire in me to rebuild it better. However, without realizing it, my sickness was pushing me beyond my limits, fueling an inner darkness that was overpowering my light, and destroying me. I don’t believe in letting go of pain, because we need to know suffering to know love and have a reason to live but I’m trying to find balance so that my inner light isn’t overpowered by my darkness. The Tao Te Ching and Man’s Search for Meaning have helped me hold my darkness at bay.
- Remember, you are not your thoughts. You are the observer of your thoughts, rather than your thoughts being you. You, the Self, choose what thoughts to give meaning to. Whenever I have a destructive thought spurred by pain, I pause, let the thought enter, feel the emotions, honor it, and then choose whether to let it pass. I define my thoughts, rather than my thoughts defining me. This Reddit thread, and The Untethered Soul, explores this concept in depth.
- Finally, get vaccinated! There is some early evidence that the vaccine can help with long-haul symptoms. Ever since I got my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, I have started to feel better.
I’ve gained a lot of strength through this process and hope my experience can be a guide to others - but I wish I didn’t have to figure it out on my own. As of April 6, 2021, 918 members of the University community have gotten the virus. For those of you struggling to rebuild, I see you and am here for you. Please reach out.
The University is currently making plans for resuming in-person instruction in the fall. They must include COVID survivors and long-haulers in that conversation so that no student falls through the cracks and everyone has the tools and support needed to reach their full potential.
Ibrahim Rashid is a first-year master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy.