Love in a pandemic


March 20, 2020

Love is a virus.

We spread it with the slightest caress or infectious smile. Too, with words, we strengthen others, shoring up immune systems, helping survivors survive what they must. Yet, just as easily, language decimates what was once healthy, including our bonds.

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A troubling pattern of symptoms presented itself several years ago. Nearly the moment I reached middle age, my Southern-Lady epigenomes switched on, my mouth frothing, pouring out words I’d once found nauseating.

Sweetheart.

Sweetie.

Honey.

Darling.

Dearheart.

Over time, the symptoms grew acute. Words squirted out before I could seal my lips, others oozing, despite my attempt to clamp my hand over my mouth. Then, came bodily symptoms. I would come to, finding myself touching a nearby shoulder, a tender conveyance for another soul that caught me off guard. As if seizing uncontrollably, I would envelop others, wrapping my arms about them, drawing them close.

I felt embarrassed at these human displays, as if my aging had weakened me, rendering me emotionally feeble, transforming my impermeability, my exterior defenses melting away, leaving me open, pourous.

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See, I’d come of age in South Central Appalachia, growing up a white female in a world that celebrated impervious (white) masculinity. The images around me had always been of males: firebrand preachers, steely mountaineers, and ironlike athletes.

Sometime in my youth, I’d made a deal with myself: embody loud, raucous, profanity-spewing femaleness who proudly exclaimed to her friends, “I don’t cry” (a lie!) Outwardly and inwardly, I rejected what I saw as delicate, frail femininity, for me, the type depicted in myths, movies, and pews come Sunday morning.

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As I matured, the virus my system had been suppressing became active, and I could feel my softening. In turn, I found myself infecting others with gentle endearments, murmuring, “Oh honey” as I collected them in my arms, snuggling body to body, a mingling of essences. And I loathed myself for all of it. After a time, though, I learned to live with what the virus was doing to me. Then, I came to relish it.

Today, I’m taking an oath. It’s my personal Hippocratic Oath: to spread the virus, infecting others with....

Love in a pandemic.

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Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.

Microscopic Love


March 22, 2020

Love is a continuously mutating strain, and yet, strangely, it remains the same at its core.

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Great crises of humanity are encoded into us, written into our DNA. At the genetic level, we have a deep knowing what has come before us, what our ancestors faced.

Ostracism, scapegoating, and murder: these happened throughout The Black Death of the 14th Century, the San Francisco Plague of the 20th Century, and the Ebola Epidemic of the 21st Century. As tensions spread so do paranoia, terror, and dehumanization, transmitting a contagion of cruelty across peoples and borders.

Yet, love is also communicable during our darkest times.

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Love has many strains, and not all of them benign.

Our innate need to love and be loved has a dangerous side. Unknowingly, some of us transmit microscopic infections to the most vulnerable. Mary Mallon prepared delicious delights, exposing families to typhoid fever. A beloved healer in Sierra Leone died in the EBOV outbreak, her body infecting hundreds of mourners who honored her at her burial ceremony. There have been others too, devoted healthcare practitioners whose care killed rather than healed.

Love can’t always cure ailments or rid the body of invading infections. Maybe love puts us at greater risk in some ways.

We hold people, wiping away their tears. We clasp their hands when we have no words of comfort. We give them sips of water when their lips crack and bleed. We wash their emaciated bodies as their fluids spill out, a reverse baptism.

Undaunted, we spread love.

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One of the great honors of my life has been sitting with women who are living with cancer and listening to their stories. Even when I pressed them for their own survival tales, many of them wanted to talk, instead, about caring for others, sharing stories with me of their children’s deteriorating health and spouses’ death and dying. Even in a state of weakened immunity, those beautiful souls provided care.

Humbled by their stories, I've learned so much from the women with whom I share space, especially how love and illness fuse, embedding themselves into our DNA.

Love in a pandemic is always present, even if microscopic, perhaps mutating and becoming more potent in the waning of mortality.

Our protections deteriorate, leaving us exposed. Our shoulders slump, our legs fail. And we collapse under the weight of our own need. Finally, we submit to what’s always been there, coursing through us, asymptomatic until our defenses lapse. Microscopic love finds a way in, passing through the barriers we can no longer erect in our weakened state.

That’s how we spread love in a pandemic.

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Make Love Go Viral


March 25, 2020

Love in a pandemic requires super-spreaders.

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As the most recent pandemic peaks and abates throughout the world, I recognize that I’m not alone, even in a time of solitude.

Here’s how I know I’m not alone: I hear it in the language we share:

Social-distancing.

Self-quarantining.

Contact tracing.

Once, I’d only heard these words spoken by illness specialists, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, health-communication researchers, for example.

But now, our language is mutating.

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We’re all super-spreaders. We’re all carriers.

I recognized that the first time I stepped into a communication class. Sixteen-years-old, I was one of those privileged high schoolers who got to take courses for credit at our local university.

Now, let me be clear. I was a mediocre student—funny, when you consider that I’m a professor. But there was something about communication that I instinctively understood, even before I stood behind the podium to give my speech to a room full of college students.

With each word and gesture, we infect others...with ideas, opinions, and emotions, and in doing so, we mutate language. And when we mutate language, we mutate the world.

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Love in a pandemic becomes communicable in so many ways. Here’s what I’m hearing from and seeing in you:

1) Exhaling LOVE.

You wake, the morning light lilac, and your mind reaches for the previous day’s treacheries. Yet, when you open your lips, you know your very breath carries contagions, so you whisper on your exhalation, “I love you,” even though those words have been released by you billions of times before.

Our viral load of compassion must increase during great crises, infecting ourselves and others with kindness and grace, not suspicion and rage.

We make love communicable on our very breath.

2) Shedding LOVE.

Some contagions transmit through something called viral shedding, carried to another in our velvety caresses or our intimate secretions.

You reach out to another who’s in pain, and even if your touch doesn’t land on naked skin, your gentle gesture may be enough to release a blissful biochemical cocktail that eases pain. You blow kisses at your dear ones, pawing at the space between you, sending air-hugs, your affections silent but still potent.

Love doesn’t require a lot in a pandemic. It’s opportunistic, waiting for the smallest opening in our defenses.

3) Super-spreading LOVE.

Think you’re unimportant? In a pandemic, you are more important than ever.

Hate for and fear of Others spread rapidly during crises. So can love. Just look at the musicians in Liberia who produced a song about how to stay safe during the EBOV outbreak. Or the photographers who captured parents cradling their dying children during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Or the writers who journalabout the heartbreaking sweep of illness across the human landscape.

We’re all capable of being super-spreaders of hate. With our words, we can target and decimate populations, launching our own biochemical campaign—akin to tossing plague-infected bodies in a community’s water sources.

Or, we can all take our own Hippocratic Oaths. With each word and gesture, we seek to do no harm. More so, we seek to become super-spreaders.

Make love go viral in a pandemic.

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Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.

Suffering Isn't Equal. No 1 of 2


March 28, 2020

Love in a pandemic requires our mindful recognition.

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Suffering in a pandemic is pretty much guaranteed, but not everyone suffers equally.

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I live in a land of emerald forests, crystal waterfalls, jade lakes, and blue mountains, some that swell, rounding pleasantly, some that aggressively stab into the sky.

Southern Appalachia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. No wonder I moved back after living in Georgia’s piedmont region for six years. My childhood home lured me with its enthralling siren song, silent to many, but threading into me and pulling me into the mountains again.

But like anyone in a loving, long-term relationship, I recognize the bleak alongside the beauty: this land is also marked by disparities—economic, educational, and health.

We have disproportionate levels of cancer and diabetes, to name a few. Plus, there’s our problem of co-morbidities, simultaneous illnesses in a single person. On top of it, that person may live under the same roof with generations of kin, all of whom are experiencing multiple illness conditions. Then, consider the geographic and economic structures limiting regular access to quality healthcare.

My point?

People don’t suffer equally in our day-to-day living. Neither will we in a pandemic.

Some families, communities, and populations are fixing to get hit harder.

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Years back, I chatted with a woman at the edge of a misty, morning field. We were among the thousands of people who would gather on that stretch of green, ringed by mountains, for the RAM clinic (Remote Area Medical).

She and I stood only a few feet apart, but we stood different worlds—at least socio-economically. I was at RAM as a cancer communication researcher. She was there as a patient. I was hoping to get respondents for my survey. She was hoping the long lines didn’t stop her from getting the care she needed. Otherwise, she’d have to wait. Maybe till next year. Me? I might have to leave RAM with a low sample size. Poor, poor me.

I’ve shared this story before, so many times that it’s imbedded inside me, like honeysuckle vine burrowing into a crabapple trunk.

At the edge of that field, she told me about the lumps in her breasts, painful, disfiguring. But, like so many others at RAM, she couldn’t afford the drive to the nearest screening facility, let alone any treatment that would follow. So, she’d learned to live with the discomfort of having breasts mutated by tumors (benign or malignant, she couldn’t say).

I find myself thinking of her often.

And that was before the pandemic.

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What stories would that woman tell me now?

I’ve carried her with me everywhere. Into my classrooms when I teach health communication. Into my interviews with cancer survivors. More so, I carry her into my medical appointments.

When my OBGYN looks me in the eyes and chats with me for a half-hour before having me hop up on the exam table, I see HER. When I text my primary care physician about some annoying symptom that has cropped up and get a reply, I see HER.

And I see her now too. While I’m outside on my sunny deck, sitting on my new patio furniture, hunched over my laptop, writing a blog.

Love in a pandemic means recognizing that suffering is not equal.

And then, we dedicate some part of our lives to addressing that.

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Love Is Aware of Others' Suffering. No 2 of 2


April 1, 2020

Love in a pandemic demands our porous minds, bodies, and souls, allowing us to be infected with awareness.

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A couple mornings ago, I read an article about how African Americans might be more vulnerable in this pandemic.

This is how the BLMGN explained it in a recent email, “the coronavirus is especially threatening for Black Americans. Structural and systemic racism have long-upheld disparities within our healthcare systems — resulting in higher rates of chronic diseases and lower access to healthcare among Black people.”

You’ll understand why, then, organizations like BLM and the CDC pay particular attention to higher-risk populations, including Black Americans who have historically faced pronounced health disparities.

As a White woman who came of age in the South, I’ve encountered plenty of people who resist talking about the impact of racism on health. But as Father Tony DeMello wrote,

“Love springs from awareness.” — DeMello

Perhaps the truest form of love in a pandemic is our awareness of how some communities stand to suffer more.

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Years ago, I worked on a CDC-funded study in Georgia. I was a research assistant, there to learn, and boy oh boy, did I. We were exploring, in part, how we think of genetic information and technologies. I joined a team of researchers—of varying genders, races—who went into communities and gathered surveys.

At one point, two of us hung out in a salon, spent the whole day there watching gorgeous women get elaborate braids and weaves. I was the only White person there, not that being an obvious outsider bothered me. After all, I’d lived briefly in Prince George County, MD, and Northern India, so I value those times that I get reminded what it’s like to be a visible minority.

A warm energy rippled throughout the salon. Music played. People laughed, throaty and unguarded. And, my favorite, women ate—and without that self-conscious nonsense I see with a lot of White females.

Most women welcomed me, some graciously completing the survey, getting a small compensation for their time.

One woman ended up being my teacher, though.

“Would you like to fill out a survey about genetics?” I asked. “We’re not looking for experts. We just want to learn what people think, feel. You’ll get $25.00 for completing it.”

Her reply came swiftly.

“Why? You’re just going to try killing us again.”

“Uhm, well, no we aren’t. But I understand.”

And I did...somewhat.

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When I’ve told that story before to audiences of White people, I often get met with surprise, shock, even indignation. I think certain folks question wonder why I wasn’t angry back in that salon. And I wasn’t, and here’s why.

There’s a long legacy of racism within the medical community itself. No, I'm not piling on the awesome healthcare providers on the frontlines of this pandemic. But, yes, I’m pointing to Tuskegee, that infamous syphilis study. I’m also talking about much more. Then, let’s not forget Henrietta Lacks, a young African American woman who had her cervical cancer cells gathered without her consent, having a revolutionary impact on medicine...without benefit to the Lacks family until decades after Henrietta’s death.

There are numerous historical cases and current events, underscoring the persistent lack of trust that some Black people still have toward medical institutions and personnel.

So back to that article I mentioned earlier. I got to thinking about the layers of mistrust between Black communities and medical communities, and I felt like I was back in that salon, standing in front of one of my great teachers, holding a thick, paper survey and (re)learning an important lesson.

And to paraphrase Tony DeMello....

Love in a pandemic: it springs from being aware that not all people will suffer equally.

Let’s recognize that, at least. Then, maybe donate to one of the worthy organizations fighting in the thick of it.

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Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitterhttps://twitter.com/KADorganand her websitehttps://www.kellydorgan.com/.