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Pandemic Reflections: Struggle, Adapt, Overcome

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RadioEd

Podcast  •
RadioEd Minisode

RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full episode transcript. The transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Bobby LeFebre
Bobby LeFebre

In a time of confinement and isolation, how can we express ourselves and connect with the world around us? In this bonus minisode of RadioEd, Colorado Poet Laureate and DU alumnus Bobby LeFebre joins us for a discussion on the role of the arts during crisis. This period of physical distancing has proven both inspirational and challenging for LeFebre, who has had to get creative with the way he presents his work. LeFebre also shares one of his latest, pandemic-inspired poems with RadioEd and describes his creative process, while also offering advice to aspiring poets.

More of LeFebre's work:

Tracy Vozar

 

Part 3 

Tracy Vozar is a clinical assistant professor in GSPP and directs GSPP’s infant and early childhood mental health specialty.

More information:

 

Part 4

Philip and Samara
Tedeschi and Samara

Philip Tedeschi is a clinical professor and director of the Graduate School of Social Work's Institute for Human-Animal Connection. That's him and his dog, Samara. 

More Information:

 

Part 5 

Bobby LeFebre

Bobby LeFebre. LeFebre (MA '13) is the Colorado State Poet Laureate and a graduate of the master’s program in arts and culture at University College.

More information:

 

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Transcript

Lisa Ward:

I face the unknown every day. I quickly move from one human experience of trauma and acute illness to the next without hesitation. I search for joy and bow my head in sorrow while reflecting on the magnitude of suffering. I am not a hero. Behind the N95 mask, goggles and face shield, I am just like you.

While you look to me for comfort in your worst moment, I am expected to be strong and resilient in every moment. I too have family and friends that I have not seen. I have felt isolated and alone. My sacrifices are naught unlike yours. In the beginning, there were howls of gratitude and thrilling flyovers of fighter jets. Police cars, fire trucks and ambulances illuminated the dark sidewalk in front of the ER in solidarity.

My face battered and bruised by the tight-fitting N95 mask was streak with tears of raw emotion. I was frustrated with the hour by hour changes necessary to ensure our safety. Going to work felt like going to war against an unknown virus we did not fully understand. Watching the anxiety and fear and eyes of sick patients struggling to breathe scared me. The expectation that I could continue to reassure patients that everything was going to be okay was difficult and weighed heavily on my heart.

There were frightening moments of uncertainty, uncharacteristic days of silence and empty hallways, harrowing moments of resuscitation. The days, weeks and months of the pandemic dragged on. As my colleague started getting sick, the hospital reached critical capacity and patients continue to die. Any glimmer of hope was extinguished by exhaustion and grief.

Today, I can clearly visualize a new normal while my voice is still muffled by the thick filter of an N95 mask, and I'm still required to have my temperature checked before reporting to work. My eyes have softened and my spirit has lifted. But make no mistake, I am not blind to the reality that my job is far from over.

The Internal Incident Command Center at Denver Health remains active. To date, we have had a total of 2,051 COVID-19 admissions and 1,979 discharges. We have administered 74,806 doses of vaccine to staff, patients and members of the public currently eligible while I continue to work in the emergency department primarily on weekends and holidays, my full-time position as representing the hospital in the Colorado legislature.

In politics, when the ayes have it, the motion passes. The motion before us now is the passage of time. We must give ourselves the grace to heal, the strength to recover and the courage to move forward. All those in favor, say aye.

Alyssa Hurst:

That was Lisa Ward sharing her story, The Ayes Have It. Lisa has spent countless hours treating COVID-19 patients in the emergency room providing comfort and hope in times of desperate need. And while not all of us have been in her exact position, her pain and loss might feel familiar.

Alyssa Hurst:

On this special episode of RadioEd, we are exploring the ways we've struggled, adapted and overcome whether that's through adapting crucial telehealth technology for therapy, leaning on our four-legged friends or turning to the arts as an outlet. These are the stories that have shaped the last year.

Alyssa Hurst:

Nicole Militello talked with University of Denver Psychology professors, Apryl Alexander and Kim Gorgens about the toll the pandemic has taken.

Nicole Militello:

This month marks one year since coronavirus shut down the United States. Businesses closed their doors, some for the last time. Students went home for spring break and never returned to the classroom, and many of us were separated from our loved ones for months. While the virus spread rapidly, another crisis was growing alongside it, a mental health crisis.

Lisa Ward's experience in the ER that you heard at the beginning of this episode is just one of so many stories. When the country retreated inside last year, frontline workers showed up working harder than ever. They're overworked, exhausted, and many are facing serious burnout. This is something Apryl Alexander has seen a friend experience firsthand over the past year.

Apryl Alexander:

Yeah, one of my close friends locally is a nurse, who has been on the front lines since this pandemic has hit and not only has she seen the effects of COVID on individuals in the community, she's seen losses of individuals in the community due to COVID and even colleagues. So thinking about them and how they've really had to sustain over time, she had to also witness so many people quit because the mental health toll was too much, too much to bear during this time.

Apryl Alexander:

I think valuing the importance of our frontline workers and their mental health, it has become even more salient during this moment in time.

Nicole Militello:

And Kim Gorgens points out the harsh reality when we consider that mental health toll.

Kim Gorgens:

And Apryl will agree that this is a group of responders, those frontline folks. This is healthcare, EMS. To some degree, this is also law enforcement and corrections, but these folks with these frontline jobs have a history of not accessing mental health services when they need it. We don't meet their needs on our best day.

And so, imagining that toll of the accumulation of 12 months now, plus stress and mental wear is really hard to imagine.

Nicole Militello:

And it's not just the frontline workers who are feeling rundown. New studies are revealing just how serious the mental health toll has been for everyone.

Apryl Alexander:

Yeah, APA recently released a Stress in America study that they do on a regular basis. And in this recent study, they showed that 8 out of 10 Americans are experiencing COVID-related stress. So we're seeing a toll that is taking on the mental health of individuals through depression, anxiety, this experience of loss.

Kim Gorgens:

I'll just add a big exclamation point. Eight of 10 people is a number that we've never seen before. I mean, it's really staggering. This was a study, I think, from January of this year 2021 from that Kaiser Family Foundation that found that four of 10 people met the actual diagnostic criteria for anxiety or depression.

So it's not even as if people have a passing kind of malaise. These are clinically significant disruptive problems. And one of four, 26% of folks endorse suicidality. So it's a mental health crisis on a scale we've never seen in several lifetimes.

Nicole Militello:

Uncertainty is a big player in all of these. When the country went into lockdown, misinformation started swirling. With little knowledge about this new deadly virus, it was unclear just how long this might last. Something that gave a lot of people false hope that this would all be done and over with soon.

But Gorgens shares how one group of people may have actually had a more realistic picture of what was to come.

Kim Gorgens:

People who are depressed actually have a more accurate appraisal of the world, and of risk. And it's the rest of us who have, you could argue, even delusional optimism. And like Apryl said, that was me the whole time listening month to month assuming that things would be more normal at some end point. It'd be next quarter, it's going to be back in person and student life will look normal and I'll be able to see my students again. Well, not next quarter, but I bet it's going to be the quarter after that.

Nicole Militello:

That delusional optimism, as Gorgens calls it, shocked a lot of people when they saw major tech companies in the first few weeks of the pandemic announcing their employees wouldn't return to work until some point in 2021.

Kim Gorgens:

Which at that time was like, "What are you ... We're going to be back to normal a few weeks from now. This is just a flu season, right?" We totally misgauged the severity of the problem from the outset. But to see the folks who more accurately gauged the risk and planned ahead, it was absurd at that time. And I think the folks who are struggling the most have the most accurate picture of how long and drawn out this will be, has been.

Nicole Militello:

And now, as we passed the one-year mark, we can see that accurate picture. The greatest loss? More than half a million deaths. But we're also experiencing missed milestones, canceled weddings, missed graduations, no vacations to look forward to and the list goes on.

Apryl Alexander:

We know these milestones are a huge deal. So I think of all of our college students who are first generation and you had this whole graduation plan in your head of your parents and your loved ones and your grandparents showing up to graduation to celebrate you, and now, that's different. You're not able to march through this stadium or the field or wherever, and it looks very different.

Apryl Alexander:

So those losses are important. And again, I think people were adaptive and found some different ways. Even our graduation was virtual and we still were able to get more people to connect than maybe ever before because you didn't have those travel barriers. But we can't discount those losses. I do see people brush them off of, "Oh, what's the big deal about your 16th birthday?"

Apryl Alexander:

No, that's a milestone that we just amplify in our culture so much. It's everywhere. It's in media. We talked about it of that day that you get to drive and have your driver's license. And so, when we missed out on those things, again, I think that does contribute to those phase and era of grief and loss.

Kim Gorgens:

There's such an element of loneliness embedded in all of these. With grief, it's a social experience and we mourn in a social way, and we gather as a group and with our loved ones to celebrate the life of someone that we've lost. We gather as a group to celebrate a quinceanera. We celebrate as a group to celebrate graduation.

Kim Gorgens:

We've lost that piece. So there's an element of loneliness to all of these experiences that is, I think, it's the tie that binds all of these kind of sentinel moments in our lives and we really have not been well-prepared to weather this challenge solo.

Nicole Militello:

And COVID has intensified that cracks in our society. Data shows communities of color being disproportionally impacted by COVID, women bearing the consequences of the switch to remote work and learning, and lack of support for men and women who are incarcerated. And those are just a few.

Apryl Alexander:

As we're seeing the vaccine rollouts, we're seeing again people of color not being high on the list for the COVID vaccines or not getting access to it as they should be. And if we're taking kind of that intersectional framework just making sure we're supporting individuals of disabilities or unhoused individuals.

Apryl Alexander:

I've been speaking out a lot about incarceration. In our states, we have not prioritized incarcerated individuals on the vaccine list, which has been a CDC recommendation which other states have done. Again, making sure that we're humanizing the people who are incarcerated because their safety is going to be a part of our safety that we've already seen the South Africa strain go into our Colorado prisons and that's going to be a risk to our whole community.

Apryl Alexander:

And so, as we're kind of thinking of COVID, we also need to think about the individuals who have been historically marginalized and how they're continuing to be marginalized in this moment and make sure any of our kind of plans for access and supports and social safety nets include those marginalized populations.

Nicole Militello:

And when work, home, school, all the areas of our life collide into one space for a year, problems become inflamed.

Apryl Alexander:

Yeah, with all those kind of added stressors in one space, that's where we are seeing the heightened rates of substance use in the household, domestic violence, child abuse because people are stressed. People are under duress. And they don't have these kind of boundary spaces. For that kid, they could go away from school and have some sense of protection and be around people who would care for them.

Apryl Alexander:

But now that they're at home and all these stressors are exacerbated in this one confined space, we're seeing all of these, again, social ills being amplified whether it is substance abuse, domestic violence or child abuse. And I've been talking about that quite a bit. Myself and my students have been writing on it. I've been talking to members of congress about what is this going to look like when we start returning back to work and school, that now these kids will be around mandatory reporters and we will see them and have eyes on them and know about their abuse.

Apryl Alexander:

And so what supports are we going to have to have, again, in this maybe post-COVID world in order to make sure people are having the care that they need in order to process everything that was going on at home.

Nicole Militello:

Now, more than one year into the pandemic, America is starting to see some signs of hope. More than 133 million people have been vaccinated and President Biden has said all American should be eligible for the vaccine by May, a glimmer of normalcy. But will the return to the new normal be as easy as some think or could we see more mental health concerns come with it?

Apryl Alexander:

Yeah, I always think of the six or seven-year-old who's been on virtual learning for so long. Was it going to be like to be going back into the classroom and you're like, "What is this?"

Nicole Militello:

That's so true.

Apryl Alexander:

And be overstimulated, not knowing the physical classroom norms that that's going to be probably jarring for a lot of young kids. And so, there's going to be this level of re-socialization or socialization that's going to have to occur in the months to come.

Kim Gorgens:

And people are going to be skittish. This is a scary time. You think of throwing open the gates and we're all running for the grocery store, throwing our masks into the air celebrating like we would at graduation or something. But people are fearful. And it's a set of really advanced sophisticated skills to navigate in the world and to manage close relationships and interpersonal conflicts.

Kim Gorgens:

And we're all a little rusty in that way. There's a kind of learning curve to finding your way in whatever this new normal will be, and I'm thinking of folks who are entering, re-entering the dating arena. That's a whole new world where that's available to you in person. And folks who are returning to the workplace for the first time in a long time.

Kim Gorgens:

There's going to be a window of adjustment that is unique to each person but common to all of us for probably a year or more.

Nicole Militello:

One thing both Alexander and Gorgens agree on is we shouldn't rush to put the pandemic behind us. Slow and steady will ensure we embrace and protect something we all need right now, hope.

Kim Gorgens:

Yeah, it's so precious. Optimism is it's the most powerful clinical tool we have available to us. It's the most powerful mover of social change. To Apryl's point, it's so fragile and you don't want to blow it, because the cost of losing that optimism is it's harder to build it back up.

Alyssa Hurst:

Nicole Militello on how we've struggled. But that's not the end of the story.

As weeks of quarantine stretched into months, more people than ever before needed mental health services. And to help them, we are going to have to improvise. And sometimes, we came up with alternatives that work so well, we might actually keep them around even after the pandemic is gone.

Here's Lorne Fultonberg.

Lorne Fultonberg:

It's early in the pandemic. March, maybe April, masks are still new and strange. The country is shutdown. The panic is real. There's so much we don't know.

Tracy Vozar:

This was the time period last year where our expecting parents were wondering what labor and delivery was going to look like in the hospital setting. And there were really strict hospital rules and regulations around who could enter the hospital, who could be in the labor and delivery room.

This is Tracy Vozar on Faculty at DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

Tracy Vozar:

And quite honestly, as a psychologist, I also didn't know what that was going to look like and neither did my student clinicians.

Lorne Fultonberg:

For weeks now, Vozar has been scrambling to get answers or at the very least offer comfort to her clients, patients who are pregnant and post-partum. She and her students are leading a support group via Zoom.

Tracy Vozar:

We noticed during the second week that one of the parents who had attended the week prior was not there. And we were a little concerned like, "Ah, I hope she's okay. I hope she comes back next week." And sure enough, the following week, she did come back and in fact, she had given birth during the time period where she was away.

Tracy Vozar:

And I'm still astounded that this mom probably just a few days or within a week of giving birth attended this group over Zoom and then she shared her baby. The folks in the group were able to just enjoy that moment with her. And then she shared her experience of what it was like giving birth in the hospital during that time. And she was able to talk about here's who was able to be there, here's what it looked like, here's what I was allowed to do, here's what I wasn't allowed to do.

Tracy Vozar:

And the other moms who were expecting in the group and the dads as well, this was information they needed. This was, you could almost like see everyone shoulders dropped a little bit at the end of the conversation. All of the stress and tension, all of the questions they had that we couldn't answer for them. This parent was able to really support the others within the group and provided such an incredible amount of knowledge and support to the others. And it was powerful.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Vozar, however, had just began her work to bring Parentline to Colorado into campus. It's a program created by her friend and colleague, Dhara Meghani, who's at the University of San Francisco. Parents and parents-to-be needed mental health support for this new phase in their lives. But not everyone could access that support because they live in rural areas or they were juggling multiple kids or jobs.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Parentline was a way to meet them where they were and Vozar now had the funding and infrastructure to launch a Colorado branch. This was December 2019. Obviously within months, the community's needs changed.

Tracy Vozar:

I think at that time, I laughed about this a lot. I'm going to keep a sense of humor about it. At that time, we thought we were transitioning to telehealth for a few weeks or maybe a month or two. And in a way, I'm sort of grateful that we didn't know. I think that would have been really overwhelming.

Tracy Vozar:

And in another way, I think as a team, as a clinical team, we sort of thought like, "Okay, we'll pitch in and we'll give this 150% for the next several weeks while we're practicing virtually," not realizing that actually, it was going to be a much longer haul. And in retrospect, I probably would have slowed us down, and said, "Hang on, maybe we need to take this at a more gradual pace," if I had known the length of time we're going to be engaging virtually.

Tracy Vozar:

So suddenly, it was like going from 25 to 100 miles per hour.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Not only did Vozar and her students have to get clients set up virtually, but their physical meeting space was closed too. All their legal forms, consent forms, they also had to be transferred online where clients would have to learn to sign and return them to a secure portal. Some had never downloaded an app before, much less connected on Zoom.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Remember, the Parentline model, telehealth, wasn't meant to be a solution for everyone, but now it had to be.

Tracy Vozar:

I remember a year ago now almost exactly, having a meeting with my students and saying, "I know you all need a break. How do we want to handle this?" And I'm so incredibly humbled and proud of my students for saying, "You know, we're in this for our clients. We're going to figure this out over the next few days and we're going to transition everyone to telehealth."

Tracy Vozar:

And so that commitment to our clients, that commitment to the well-being of the families that we're working with, I will always remember that moving forward and be so grateful and thankful for our particular students and how brave they've been.

Lorne Fultonberg:

I know you've described yourself to me as a one-time telehealth skeptic.

Tracy Vozar:

Yeah, absolutely. So a hallmark of the work that we do in perinatal and infant and early childhood mental health is building relationships. We're very relationally oriented folks. We love being in the room. We love being in the community with our clients. We typically go into the home for home visits. We go to childcare settings. We go to physicians clinics. We go where our clients are. And it's very much about being in person together relationally.

Tracy Vozar:

Of course, that has not been possible over the course for the last year. So we've all had to be really creative about how we build and maintain relationships that are so central to the work that we do, but now over technology, which was something I was skeptical of before and I've been really pleasantly surprised by what we've been able to accomplish.

Sandra:

Hi, everybody. My name is Sandra and I am one of the members of the WePlay team here at the University of Denver.

Lorne Fultonberg:

One triumph, a collaboration with the Denver Children's Museum.

Sandra:

Today, I'm hoping to show you one of the many activities that you can do at your very own house. That's right, in your very own living room-

Lorne Fultonberg:

A new website hosts a series of YouTube videos, their ideas for parents stuck at home with their young children during lockdown, coaching on everything from starting a baby on solid food to using household objects for engaging play time.

Sandra:

These are two empty bottles that I took off the little plastic piece and made sure to seal.

Lorne Fultonberg:

The site, the blog, these activities, they'll all become a permanent part of Parentline services even when things are turning to "normal".

Sandra:

So let's see what we can do. Yeah, are you trying to stack them? Let's see.

Lorne Fultonberg:

In pre-pandemic times, Vozar and her students might be coaching parents from behind a one-way mirror offering these sorts of tips through a cellphone or a bug in the ear.

Tracy Vozar:

It has surprisingly lent itself very well to virtual and to Zoom in particular. Our clinicians turn their videos off but they can still view the parent and child in interaction and they can do so within the child's own home. So they get to see the parent and child in their home, in their own context and they get a much better understanding, a much more nuanced understanding of what the family experience is. And it's proven to be really powerful.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Yeah, it's access you wouldn't have been able to get before.

Tracy Vozar:

We wouldn't. So we thought of all sorts of things like when families come to us saying that they're really struggling around meal time or around bedtime. These are common things that families struggle with, with young children. Now, we can set up either a cellphone or a laptop within the room, and our clinician can be observing the meal time or can be observing bedtime.

Tracy Vozar:

And with our camera off, the screen looks dark, and it's non-obtrusive. We're non-intrusive. The child usually doesn't pick up on, "Well, someone is watching me eat my meal." But instead, we can kind of be a little bit of a clinical fly on the wall to get a really great sense of what's happening within the home for the family.

Lorne Fultonberg:

That's important, Vozar says, because COVID has introduced a new slate of challenges. Parentline has seen an increase in substance abuse, emotional and physical violence is on the rise too. Adults have to divide their attention and kids encounter fewer grownups who can spot any issues.

Lorne Fultonberg:

That's not to mention stressors around finances, healthcare, job security, housing, discrimination or racism.

Tracy Vozar:

Our role to support their mental health and well-being is really hampered because we're up against these much greater, much more proximal stressors that they're experiencing.

Lorne Fultonberg:

I don't think it's too much of a stress to say that everybody has had a tough time and struggle during the pandemic here. It's got to be tough for psychologists to keep up a brave face and be that pillar of support when they are also struggling with these sorts of things.

Tracy Vozar:

It is. I think it's difficult on all of us. I think we're all facing our own challenges during the pandemic. As I mentioned early on, we thought this was going to be a much shorter term of moving to virtual and being at home. And this long-term nature, this being in this existence for almost a year now, it is taking its toll.

Tracy Vozar:

What we're noticing and observing and talking about is that psychologists in general were experiencing Zoom fatigue. Our student clinicians, maybe even more so, because they're seeing their clients over Zoom, but they're also attending classes over Zoom. They're getting supervision over Zoom. It's not uncommon for our students to be on Zoom for 10, 11 hours out of the day. That's challenging. It's just exhausting.

Tracy Vozar:

And our students and ourselves as psychologists, we're all experiencing the same stressors, challenges, grief, illness but everyone is. And in addition, we're trying to support and be there for our clients who are experiencing the same, and in some instances, much worse. And so figuring out how to be present, have the energy, have the bandwidth to really show up for our clients many hours out of the day and many days out of the week for weeks at a time now almost a year. It's something that none of us are equipped to know how to do. And so, we're definitely paying more attention to how each other is doing and we're trying to reach out to one another with services, with offers of support.

Lorne Fultonberg:

What does this all mean for the future, for psychologists, for parents, for their families? Vozar is trying to figure that out. "Clearly," she says, "mental health and emotional support, developmental support, there will still be a need, maybe a bigger need than ever before."

Tracy Vozar:

All of those resources are going to be in greater demand. So, helping to repair many of the ruptures that we've seen within our families, I'm hopeful that we'll see increased funding and support for substance use, for mental health widely defined, for supporting families that have experienced difficulties surrounding domestic violence.

Tracy Vozar:

Supporting folks who've experienced housing, food, job and security, I think all of these support that we're already pretty worked thin are going to be needed to be bolstered in the coming years just based on the experiences that we've seen so far, and knowing that families and individuals were not in the clear yet. There's going to be some repair to be done that's going to take longer than a short few weeks or months.

Lorne Fultonberg:

I asked her about virtual Zoom therapy.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Is this the future?

Tracy Vozar:

There are pluses and minuses. And I think what myself and other clinicians and my students, my colleagues and I are all talking about, is what do we keep? What do we retain? And also, I keep telling our students, given that this is the way they're learning and how they're being trained while they're still in graduate school, the amount of innovation they're going to be able to promote in the coming years is just going to staggering. I'm really excited to see what they all come up with.

Tracy Vozar:

And in the meantime, I think there are pieces that we'll definitely want to keep. And then myself, my student clinicians, our families several are also hoping to get back at least some time to in-person work because there is that relational component that being in the room with someone that I think we're all missing. Zoom definitely has its limitations, but it also has some areas of strength.

Lorne Fultonberg:

That's when Vozar thinks back to that support group from last year.

Tracy Vozar:

That was a group that we weren't hosting before the pandemic. And I think about, gosh, that group was really powerful for those parents. And it means a lot that we were able to provide that experience and that support for them.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Is that why that story resonates with you so much?

Tracy Vozar:

I think that's one of the reasons is looking back, it really validates all of the hard work and the energy and the emotion that went into moving our clients from in-person to virtual. It was a huge undertaking. It took our entire faculty all of our staff, everyone working together. When everyone was anxious, worried, concerned themselves about the state of our world and their families and their own wellbeing, to really come together to do this hard work and to figure out how to do this really innovative model of therapy.

Tracy Vozar:

And moments like that really do make it feeling like it was all worth it because we found a way for parents to support one another even within their own homes, within quarantine. And that meant a lot.

Alyssa Hurst:

That was Lorne Fultonberg on how we've adapted.

Virtual mental health services like Parentline have been critical in helping people through serious challenges. But in those moments when the little everyday struggles of isolation have felt particularly heavy and lonely, your therapist might just be your pet. Whether they were cuddled up next to you while you cry it out, mopping up the tears with their fur, giving you an excuse to take a walk or acting as a silent sounding board, animals have been riding this out right there with us.

I talked to Philip Tedeschi, director of the Institute for the Human-Animal Connection to find out more.

Alyssa Hurst:

At the University of Denver, school is back in session. While many are still learning remotely, a few have been back on campus. And while incidents of COVID-19 exposures are low, some students have had to ride out short quarantines to keep themselves and the community safe.

Alyssa Hurst:

DU is doing what it can to make quarantine as comfortable as possible for these students, but it can be a tough experience even under the best circumstances. That's where one of these most loved therapist steps in.

Philip Tedeschi:

Well, Samara is a black Labrador retriever that has worked with me at the University of Denver for about eight years now. She has worked with a lot of different students and in a lot of different parts of the university. So primarily, she's been a dog that's helped us teach these concepts in the Graduate School of Social Work's Animal-Assistance Social Work certificate program.

Philip Tedeschi:

More often, it's informal, just her presence on campus where she's interacting with students who are missing their own animals at school and homesick and those sorts of things. So, she's done a lot of different roles and has played a pretty significant role in a lot of people's lives. In fact, I think more people know Samara probably than they do me. This year, however, she has been asked to support some of the students that have been in quarantine.

Alyssa Hurst:

When students find themselves struggling to balance quarantine with class work, feeling worn down and navigating the loneliness of isolation, a new program allows them to request a visit with Samara and Philip.

Philip Tedeschi:

Samara has this unique ability. When she sees somebody coming to her, she will run to them and greet them that way. And that's usually how it starts, and then we just walk to somewhere outside and sit and use that time to get to know each other. We don't consider it necessarily a therapy session as much as we do a bit of canine moral support.

Philip Tedeschi:

But it's been really interesting in part because often, these are persons I have never met before, and Samara has never met. But often in short period of time, it has provided a very useful interaction that allows for the ability to see around the corner and be a bit more hopeful about kind of post quarantine, just a sense of well-being that can come from believing that there will be a better day.

Alyssa Hurst:

Lately, Samara has been joined by this new therapy pup in training, Juniper, to do this work. And it's clear that what they're doing is genuinely making a difference in the lives of DU students. One of Samara's new friends shared this with us.

Alyssa Hurst:

"This wasn't my first time being in quarantine but I have never felt that alone or anxious," she writes. "I was so defeated from being isolated again. But I knew I had a lot to look forward to with Samara visiting me. Actually, seeing Samara gave me the boost I needed to make it through quarantine, and Phil was so nice too. I didn't even know I could do this, but it was so helpful and definitely had a positive impact on my mental health while I was in quarantine."

Alyssa Hurst:

One thing Samara really makes clear is that animals have been one of the unsung superheroes of this pandemic. Whether it's your cat or dog, bird, fish, you name it, companion animals have provided the support that has kept many of us going through a truly challenging time.

Philip Tedeschi:

We have the role of therapy animals that are really designated to be working in very specific settings, for example, in stress relief events or something like that on campus. But we've also been really interested in maybe the biggest story here is our pets. And one of the reasons that's such a big story is just the sheer size, the prevalence of animals in our lives in this area.

Philip Tedeschi:

And I think in many cases, people kind of underestimate this, that we would probably find in two-thirds of all homes for example that have children, we also have animals or over 300 million homes in the United States. People are living with these animals as parts of their family. They really see them as connected members of their family systems.

Philip Tedeschi:

So, we have more animals in US homes than all the people in Europe combined, and yet, it's not so obvious or maybe not so in their face because we've kind of gotten accustomed to having them in our lives.

Philip Tedeschi:

And so, I think one of the big questions during this period of time is we've seen this really large uptick in people wanting animals in their life. And that very phenomenon is a really interesting question in and of itself, but what we're trying to study and what I think maybe is the big story here in relation to human-animal connection, is what's going on in those relationships? What are their actual interactions and how do they improve our health? So, I think that might be really the biggest and most interesting element of this period of time.

Alyssa Hurst:

For me, that looks like spending all day chatting with my cat, April, when I'm not in Zoom meetings.

Actually, when I'm in Zoom meetings too, she never misses an opportunity to swish her tail in my face in front of my coworkers. We argue about why she can't have any of my lunch, seek out sunny spots together and end the day with stretches for her and yoga for me. I sound like an absolute weirdo, I know, but she has without question helped me get through a full year of isolation. And I bet plenty of others can say the same about their pets too.

Philip Tedeschi:

So, people have their own unique relationships with their animals that sometimes it's the humor that an animal might bring to your life and this kind of recognition that they're always up to something and that their lives are interesting too and that if you're around, they'll welcome you or invite you to participate in that.

Philip Tedeschi:

So lots of people talk about playing more. And play is a therapeutic strategy, and we study that actually as a feature of trauma-informed care. In fact, the course that I teach at the University of Denver in East Africa, one of the most profound elements of it is studying orphaned elephants where one of the things I've learned about trauma has been that these orphans used play as one of the ways to survive the ordeals of that times, the difficulties of having lost some of their family members.

Alyssa Hurst:

Tedeschi says this isn't unique to elephants. In fact, all mammals turn to play in some of their toughest moments as a way to cope and heal.

Philip Tedeschi:

And so with baby elephants, what they do is the largest one lies down and the other babies lie on top. And they do this kind of elephant dog pile and they wrestle around in the mud and they're touching and bumping each other and rolling around. What goes on internally, and is that it alters the interpersonal neurobiology of those individuals that are playing. And so it activates oxytocin systems, our dopamine systems, so we literally start to feel better during that physical contact.

Philip Tedeschi:

For those of you who lay on your floor and wrestle with your dog or you're playing some kind of game with your animal, often it might, to the outside eye, look like all fun and games. But really one of the things that's happening is your brain is literally changing and is activating this part of our system. The same thing happens in our connection with other people when we are interacting in certain ways and it also happens with our companion animals in the same way. We're likely to be more optimistic and we're likely to feel calmer. We're likely to feel more likely to feel positive about things.

Philip Tedeschi:

And that's exactly how we're using that strategy in a therapeutic setting, but luckily for us, it's also happening in our pet interactions, our companion animal interactions as well. So, I think that's part of the reason we're seeing so many people want these interactions and have them and benefit from them, and probably are likely to not want to give them up at the end of this period of time.

Alyssa Hurst:

And dogs, in particular, have a special way of making us build strong support systems to weather tough times. That's because after hundreds of years by our sides, they get us. Sometimes, even better than we get ourselves.

Philip Tedeschi:

They have been co-evolving with us for a long time. The species recognizes a lot about our species. And so they know us well and that turns out that that means they recognize all different kinds of things that people do as significant for communication and getting along in relationship. We actually believe that these are the very traits that resulted kind of through a selection orientation of animals that want to have relationships with people.

Philip Tedeschi:

And as it turns out, same when we look through the other end of the telescope, people do the same thing. We're also quite observant of dogs. We're getting to know them as a species better. And what the research suggests is that dogs are really now the smartest social animals relative to people, that they know us better than any other species.

Philip Tedeschi:

And we are doing the same thing with them. So we recognize vocalizations and body postures and respiration rates and all different types of communication. And people have become, pre-pandemic I think, very lazy communicators really with one another where it's not uncommon for you to live with a roommate or a partner or a spouse, or even your own children, and not recognize major things that are going on in their lives if they don't say "I'm having a really bad day." Sometimes, we don't choose to recognize or don't recognize it. But our companion animals make everything but spoken and written words relevant to their relationships with us.

Philip Tedeschi:

And so, one of the things I think we maybe are learning is through our observation and building into our repertoire more than just words. Do we actually need somebody to tell us they're in trouble in order for us to be able to respond to them? That is one of the things our animals are teaching us, that in fact, we can see it. We can recognize it. And in the case of our dogs, we would actually believe they feel it and that these capacities for response make us more empathic, more sensitive to one another. And it's not that uncommon for people to say, "My dog comes and comforts me more quickly than my husband does."

Alyssa Hurst:

It's not just the relationships that we form with our pets that matter though. It's also the relationships we form with each other. And at time of extreme isolation, disconnect and stress, humans need connection more than ever, connection with each other and with the world outside our living rooms. Dogs, it turns out, are great at facilitating that. They give us a reason to get outside and exercise, to wake up every morning with purpose and to stop for a friendly hello.

Philip Tedeschi:

When we unpackage just the presence of an animal in our lives and the ways in which it might shape our capacity for interacting with the world around us, what we find is that there's a lot of health benefits related to having animals with us. And what we also now recognize is there are some psychological or emotional benefits related to that, and that we've all probably said things like, "Oh, you need to go for a walk," meaning something about being outside, interacting with the living world outside improves our mood or improves our view of the world around us.

Philip Tedeschi:

And what I think is happening there is very unique to one of the ways animals fit into our lives so that we're more likely to have these beneficial activities and then we're also then more likely to have interactions with others that are beneficial. So, it's not uncommon that somebody might actually get to know their neighbor's animal more quickly than they know their neighbor's name. And yet, that may build that connection.

Philip Tedeschi:

And that in some cases when we have done many experiments like handed a leash with Samara on one end and the student on the other and asked them to walk across campus, and then we do that without a dog present, one of the things that we find is that there is about twice as much social interaction. It also takes twice as long to get across campus because they're stopping and they're interacting with others. And so, even during this period of time where we've had social distancing and masks on, these create these behaviors in us that allow for this connection point.

Alyssa Hurst:

After all, animals aren't just statues or arts sitting in our homes looking cute. In fact, Tedeschi says research shows that in so many ways, they are just like us, living, breathing, sentient creatures with opinions, relationships, needs, wants, emotions and more. Because of that, we relate to them. We see ourselves in them and their experiences. That's something therapists are taking advantage of.

Philip Tedeschi:

I'll just give you maybe one example. If a dog is going out and interacting with a new dog that it's never met before, and we framed that experience as getting to meet a new person or build a new friendship. One of the things that we could do is we could talk about what it takes for that dog to meet their new friend next door, friend down the block. And what are the skills? What are the ways in which that went down? How did it go, and what are the things we need to do to make friendships or have enduring friendship?

Philip Tedeschi:

Dogs are highly affiliative and in fact, about 90% plus of the interactions they have with one another are intended to demonstrate that they want to have friendships, that they want to get along. And so if you watch dogs very carefully, a lot of what they're doing is really useful for their capacity for this friendship. And when we can bring that conversation into a therapy session, we have a different dimension or different way to talk about that. It's also less provocative in some ways because it's something that these animals can do so naturally and is right in front of us.

Alyssa Hurst:

COVID-19 has shifted so much for us. Most of those shifts have been really difficult. We've lost loved ones, learned to be alone more than humans were ever meant to, lost jobs, lost the feeling of being connected and so much more. But maybe when it comes to our pets, we can say we've gain something truly beautiful.

Alyssa Hurst:

Before we say goodbye, we wanted to leave you with something that's brought us some hope and joy over the last year. That's the words of Colorado Poet Laureate, Bobby LeFebre, performing a piece titled “Here Where We Are the Flowers” that reflects on life and isolation but also looks to the promise of tomorrow.

Bobby LeFebre:

One day, the globe is spinning, we are smiling or not, mundane or magic normalcy walks on two feet, autopilot guides our way. Things are the way we know them to be. New lovers braid their fingers together for the first time as the sun sets. The zocalo is full. The mercado is loud and abundant. The city is body, living and breathing. We go about our day.

The cumpleañera blows out her birthday candles. We hug our grandmothers with reckless abandon. Every seat at the dinner table is full of friends and family. We are laughing. Mouths flung open. Words unapologetically traveling upon the wind. Vivacity abounds.

The next day, the globe stops. Together, we furrow our brow, stumble off kilter. Our hearts become ticking time bombs. Panic begets panic, all of us running in place. The unknown tethers itself to our collective consciousness. Our psyche, a lone wolf howling at the moon.

We retreat, replace wings with worry, trade the social for the solitary, make an enemy of touch. Distance becomes our god, six feet apart, running away from six feet under. We forget how to look each other in the eye. Survival becomes a dreary song we play on repeat. Our hands are chapped from reading one too many headlines.

Then slowly together, we attempt to construct a new language knowing words like our leaders are failing us. We begin to speak in statistics but here, the numbers are lives. The percentages are people. Meanwhile, the curve is rising. The crescendo, a destination uncharted. The corporeal try and coax their jettisoned souls back into their bodies, and there are so many bodies, blood, bones, flesh, wrinkles, birth marks, tattoos, dimples, eyes, scars.

Existence is upended, a hemisphere uprooted. The earth confused by all the graves here where land is acknowledged but never returned. Grief morphing into trauma, collective mourning. Curses shouted toward the heavens. Candles lit where life should be.

How did we become bygone? We've all lost something, found ourselves digging for unknown things and places we have never been. Territory uncharted, jutting emotions, a compass pointing in directions we have never traversed, anguish operationalized.

But they who have a reason to live can bear almost any how. Let us return to the circle, this holy hoop of hope that is unending. Let us lick each other's wounds, offer one another the medicine of mutual aid. Let our mourning morph into ritual. Let our grief be a tender mercy. Let these tears be libation. Let us become the altar, something living, something unfixed, something capable of transforming. Let us be both the memory and the imagination, the stewards of bridging yesterday to tomorrow.

Let us remember so that we never forget and hear at this monument, this memorial embodied. We will learn to harness and activate our anger, channel and transform our anxiety here. We will exist unafraid to sit in our sadness, to allow for it to fester until it transmutes into healing. Let our bruises become a bomb. Let our gaping wounds become mouths that translate the pain.

It is OK to not be OK. Let us bathe in our brokenness, evolved in our emptiness, faith keeping us forward-facing. And in this place, we see but have yet to arrive upon. Let us create new meaning. Social reconstruction in our hands here at this human memorial, at this monument in the flesh where we are the flowers, where we are the prayers.

Let us say and remember all their names. Let us shout our own into the void so loudly that the unborn waiting somewhere in the cosmos will smile celestially and proud. And we will walk together across time and space with understanding and empathy, arms linked together, experience endured, healing and heard. And life will bend into tomorrow with promise, I promise.

Alyssa Hurst:

Thanks for joining us for this very special episode of RadioEd. We hope in these stories you found some time and space to reflect on a year that will surely stick with us all. For more from our guests and to learn about some of the other ways the University of Denver has rallied to support its community during the pandemic, visit our show notes at du.edu/radioed.

Alyssa Hurst:

Tamara Chapman is our managing editor. James Swearingen arranged our theme. Lorne Fultonberg and Nicole Militello joined me in co-producing this episode of RadioEd and contributed reporting. I'm Alyssa Hurst, RadioEd's executive producer. This is RadioEd.