Isolation became part of the academic landscape in 2020 when institutions responded to a global pandemic. Physical classroom doors shut as colleges mobilized online delivery. Employees quarantined at home to follow medical safety guidelines. The world of education was upended.
As higher education personnel struggled to adjust to life in self‐isolation, I was two steps ahead because I had already been living that way for four months as a brain aneurysm survivor.
‘Just Bad Luck’
My recovery plan necessitated a type of personal insulation that, little did I know, would soon ripple through the country because of the COVID‐19 pandemic. But contrary to the fear that many soon experienced, isolation didn't frighten me. Instead, it strengthened me as I discovered personal resiliency. Here's how.
One Monday morning in late fall 2019 before I was to teach my first class of the week, I was awoken from sleep by the worst headache of my life. I struggled to sit up in bed. Once I did, I was hit with an intense wave of nausea, followed by dizziness and vomiting. I had never experienced sensations like this before that crippled my ability to function. My husband took me to the local ER.
That's all I remember.
It wasn't until I regained consciousness in a neurological ICU the next day that I pieced together what had happened. I had a brain aneurysm rupture known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a serious type of stroke where blood spilled into the space between my skull and my brain. This is fatal in about 50% of cases.
But I didn't die.
I did, however, need brain surgery—and would eventually have three of them in less than three weeks' time. Prior to my aneurysm, I was an otherwise healthy 39‐year‐old woman with no family history or risk factors associated with aneurysm. I rarely even had headaches. At the start of the academic year, I was walking across a stage at faculty convocation to accept my college's Teaching Excellence Award. Now, just months later, I couldn't get out of bed.
This shouldn't have happened, and the neurosurgeon who saved my life agreed. “This is just bad luck,” he counseled, words that would be eerily echoed by many during the 2020 pandemic.
One Step at a Time
But regardless of circumstance—aneurysm or pandemic—a single question arises: How does one summon the strength to pivot in the face of extreme challenge?
The answer, I found, was simple: one step at a time.
In the case of my aneurysm recovery, those steps were literal. Though I did eventually sit up and place my feet on the floor, it was a long road to regain muscle strength and movement. I still needed a walker when I left the hospital. Yet I was determined to take physical steps out of the hospital doors unaided, which was the antithesis of my entry, wherein I was carried from an air ambulance by emergency personnel.
Stepping into the world again felt at once foreign and fresh. But it's where I needed to be.
Once home, my recovery plan replaced my teaching one, and the walls of my residence became my whole world. Instead of preparing curricula, grading papers and conferencing with students, I had to refashion my life around wellness goals:
- Walk unassisted.
- Tie my shoes.
- Make it through the day without pain.
For someone who had taught full time for 17 years pulling long days, this was humbling.
But with a goal of returning to work and a personal determination to not become a statistic—since 66% of those who survive ruptured brain aneurysms have some type of permanent neurological deficit—I had to make the most of my environment.
My home became my gym. I walked circles in my living room until I was strong enough to add the dining room on rotation. Eventually, I made it outside, walked circles in the driveway, worked up stamina to make it to the mailbox and then made it to the end of the block. Pushing the goalpost with each advancement helped me.
My mind became a battlefield with neurofatigue, where my brain would tire in ways it never did before. To combat that, I flexed my mental muscles by first reading sentences, then short articles until I could sustain concentration enough to read longer ones after several weeks … and finally a full book!
I dutifully retrained my body until I could manage tasks of cooking, showering and driving. Through it all, although I wasn't in the classroom as a teacher, I was definitely a learner. I used the chrysalis of my home environment to its fullest potential until I was ready to emerge. That might have been the biggest lesson of all.
Isolation—whatever the cause—can make people fearful and anxious, frustrated and lonely. But it can also be an incredible gift. Through isolating, I learned to be patient with myself and extend grace when I needed it. I had to look out for myself, and I had to use time to my advantage. Doing so helped poise me for a return to the classroom, where I belong.
And finding myself on the other side of a traumatic brain injury helps me know this about an isolation experience: It doesn't last forever.
That's a hard lesson to understand when someone is in the throes of quarantine, but it bears remembering.
I don't yet know what the landscape will look like at my institution in fall 2020—or the larger world, for that matter. The global pandemic has forced us all into isolation in one form or another, but isolation doesn't have to constrain those who experience it. Isolation experiences can make people stronger. I've seen it in me, and I know it to be true of my colleagues.
So, as we all begin anew, I set for you the same challenge I have for myself. Bring our experiences of survival to our institutions and to our students, letting our resiliency fuel our instruction while our strength guides us forward.
For more information on brain aneurysms, visit the Brain Aneurysm Foundation at bafound.org.
Audrey Wick is an English professor at Blinn College in Texas. Readers can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram: @WickWrites.