Essay

A new city, a new job
and a global pandemic

Plus, a natural disaster for good measure
Elizabeth Stivison
April 09, 2020

On the evening of Feb. 27, my friend Germaine and I finished packing up my U-Haul. We hugged my roommates goodbye, and, along with my dog, Milo, piled into the truck to leave New York City.

I’d lived for seven years in Upper Manhattan while earning my Ph.D. at Columbia University and nearly my whole life within a few hours’ bus ride of the city. As much as I complained about NYC, it was my home. I felt excited, but also a bit nervous, to be leaving to start my postdoc at Vanderbilt University. 

Courtesy of Elizabeth Stivison
Elizabeth Stivison poses with her dog, Milo, in front of the U-Haul she used for her move to Nashville.

As we drove away, I was filled with love for my community and neighborhood that I was leaving. What I didn’t know was that my new city and new postdoc life would be nothing like I expected. Within a few weeks’ time, I would narrowly escape a devastating tornado, and the COVID-19 pandemic would turn the world upside-down.

Three weeks earlier

“Milo got out of his leash and ran away!” my dog sitter, breathless from running, told me on the phone. I was down in Nashville looking for an apartment.

Panicked, I hung up, bought the first plane ticket home, and immediately started calling people I knew from the dog park. I called Katie, whose small Muppet-like dog likes to wrestle with Milo; she went to look. I called Trena, whose big stubborn dog lets Milo lick his face. She had just arrived home from a trip and was jetlagged, but she went to look too. I texted Kelly, owner of a big curly-furred puppy. She was out of town, but her husband and daughter went to look. I called my roommates, my friend Joy (by then in tears) and my neighbor Amanda. They all looked. My labmate and friend Amr drove down from the Bronx to look in his car.

Suddenly, it seemed like every dog owner and friend in my neighborhood was looking. Numbers I didn’t even recognize were texting me where they were looking. A group text emerged. As I sat in my hotel, waiting until it was time to leave for the airport, people were updating each other on who had seen Milo and where.

“He’s in the northwest corner of the playground, but he ran off.”

“Saw him running north from the subway stop.” 

“Oh, Milo! That little white dog? I know that dog! The girl loves him so much,” a guy at the corner bodega told my friend. 

 Roger, the owner of a golden retriever who Milo loves, looked until almost 2 a.m., even though he was flying to Mexico a few hours later.

Around 5 a.m. the next day, as I was in the airport waiting for my flight, the texts and updates started again. By the time I landed, I was armed with maps of Milo sightings.

I finally spotted him in a cemetery, and he came running when he saw me.

I texted the group and everyone was overjoyed and relieved. I felt like I was George Bailey in the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when his friends and family come together to save him. My pup, the little goofy love of my life, had been saved by my community.

But, unlike George Bailey, I didn’t earn this support in any real way: I never saved any bank from the Depression or helped anyone buy their home.

And, perhaps stupidly, I was leaving this caring community in a few weeks for a new job.

Welcome to Nashville 

Germaine and I arrived at my new apartment in Nashville on March 2. We piled all my boxes in the living room, set up my bed and an inflatable mattress for her, returned the U-Haul and went to sleep.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Stivison
Elizabeth Stivison, at left, her friend Germaine and Milo take a selfie on their way to Nashville. "We took several days for the drive down and explored the snowy forests in Virginia, a cider brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, and hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains," Elizabeth wrote. "This picture is from our motel in the Smokies, which were beautiful even in winter."

During the night, I woke to the sound of sirens. “Man, I was really hoping Nashville would be quieter than New York City,” I thought.

In the morning, everyone was texting me: my mom, my old roommates, my friends. “I heard there was a tornado in Nashville. Are you OK?” I told them all I was fine.

I went into the living room and said, “Germaine, I think there was a tornado last night … nearby.” We looked on the map together and saw that it was about 3 miles from us. “I didn’t know that’s what those sirens meant!” I said.

Welcome to Nashville!

The next day, after saying goodbye to Germaine, I heard on the radio about a case of COVID-19 in New York, and it was near where I used to live and work. I texted my former roommate, Katherine.

“I know! It’s starting …,” she wrote.

“Wash your hands!” I told her. 

Amenities for making acquaintances 

My apartment in New York had been a four-bedroom, so I knew I’d want to be able to see people in my new building in Nashville. I also knew I’d need a dog park nearby so that Milo could play and get his energy out and so I could meet other dog owners. I chose a building with common rooms, a café, an office with Internet and a coffee machine, next door to a big dog park. 

I was excited to meet people and see what the Music City was like. I decided I’d help after the tornado by supporting local businesses by my patronage. I went to an art event and met a sweet and kind couple whose street was destroyed by the tornado, but somehow their house was undamaged. We exchanged numbers and planned to meet up soon. 

I went to the dog park each day and slowly began meeting people. I loved the feeling of arriving and finally recognizing faces, dog and human. I exchanged numbers with a few people and made plans to bring our dogs at the same time. 

Things changed quickly 

On March 13, my former labmates forwarded me an email that said: “The hospital has a critical need for surgical masks … for all labs that have surgical masks, please bring them down … there will be a box for depositing them when you enter the suite. PLEASE BRING THEM NOW.” 

The next day, they texted me that the lab at Columbia was closing. 

I emailed my new boss at Vanderbilt to make sure I could still come in on Monday for my first day of work. He said I could but that the labs might close soon, so I should start thinking about remote projects and only do minimal lab work that was essential to my project. 

March 16: My first day of work in my new lab! Also the first day my old lab at Columbia was officially shut down. 

“I think the lab will be closed soon,” my boss told me. 

I started making cell lines to use later, and Vanderbilt banned Ph.D. students from coming in. 

My apartment building closed all the common rooms, and the city closed the dog park. 

On March 22, the mayor of Nashville issued a safer-at-home order. I texted another postdoc in my lab, “What does this mean for lab?” She didn’t know. 

Our PI told us that, so far, Vanderbilt considers labs essential. As a lab, we decided a few things. First, that we will try to not overlap in lab. Second, that we will probably be shut down soon, though we don’t know when. Third, that we’ll have Zoom lab meetings once a week to keep us all connected. “So we don’t come back in a few months a bunch of strangers!” our PI said. 

After learning how to do tissue culture, I started going into lab every few days, always checking to make sure no one else would be there, and did my work alone. When I couldn’t figure something out, I’d Zoom with my boss and show him my problems. 

“Is this the correct media?” I’d ask, holding the bottle up to the camera. 

One of the few times my boss and I were in lab at the same time (we both wore masks), he was teaching me how to freeze cells for liquid nitrogen storage, and while waiting for the media to be ready, he told me about his daughter. 

“She’s been bugging us to get a pet. She wants a dog so badly. But we agreed she could start with a mouse,” he said. 

“You should get her a hamster instead!” I said with conviction. “Mice are stinky. Hamsters don’t stink as much. I always had hamsters growing up.” 

He laughed, and we resuspended the cells in freezing media, to be stored in liquid nitrogen. “Now, these have to go at -80, overnight, then they can be moved to LN2 tomorrow,” he said. 

Starting to feel familiar 

I occasionally take the bus to the lab instead of walking, and I am always the only rider. The driver, under his mask, usually smiles at me and recognizes me. “Hello again!” he says when I get on. “You done for the day?” he says when I see him again on my way home. 

One time I asked him, “Many other people out today?” 

“Well, including you, I had three people on the bus today.” 

One day, a person I recognized from the dog park waved when he saw me walking Milo. We walked together, staying six or more feet apart. His store has closed. We let our dogs play.

I thought of my friends in New York and how our lives are extremely different now. People were dying and hospitals overflowing there. And there I was in a sunny park, chatting almost normally. 

Lab community from afar

On our lab’s first Zoom meeting, we talked about how the lab will probably have to close soon, but again, none of us knew when. It felt a little like “Goodnight, Wesley, sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning,” from “The Princess Bride.” 

After our PI told us what he was working on, he said, “Also, I’m basically home-schooling my daughter. I’m with her from 8 to 12, and my wife is with her from 12 to 4. And also, I have to finish this hamster cage I started building.” 

“A hamster cage! You got a hamster!” I said. I was so happy my advice was taken seriously, even if it wasn’t science-related advice. 

“Yes, her name, or his, I’m not sure, is Hamilton.” He sent us all a photo of the light brown fuzzy critter. 

Milo then walked into the room and started to chew my backpack straps. “Hey, Milo, don’t eat that please,” I said. 

“Is that your dog? Show us your dog,” they said. 

I turn the laptop to capture Milo, careful to hide the pile of still-unpacked boxes and miscellaneous mess around my living room. Everyone “aww”ed at his cute face. 

When it was my turn to share, I talked about making my new cells lines and trying to get a handle on the literature. “It’s a little frustrating,” I said, “because I’m used to reading papers in my field and understanding them. I keep having to read these over and over again, not getting it.”

“You know, text me or call me with any questions,” my boss said. “Ideally you’d be reading in lab and could just pop into my office with questions.” I left the lab meeting feeling less alone. 

After the meeting, I saw that Milo had, in fact, chewed through my backpack strap. I tied it back together, temporarily fixing it, but the knot came out the other day.

Fear from a distance 

On April 2, my former labmates at Columbia texted about an email they had received from a professor involved in coordinating the university’s response to COVID-19. It asked for volunteers to transport patients at the hospital. There are too many patients, and the hospital can’t afford to let doctors and healthcare workers walk away to transport patients. 

“The fact that basic scientists are being asked to serve in a patient-facing role underscores the seriousness of the situation at the hospital,” the email stated. “I honestly never thought that this would happen. The need is real, but so are the risks. Think this through.” 

My instinct was to tell them all, “No, don’t do it!” 

One labmate texted me, “I don’t know what to do. I want to help, but I’m also scared. I’m scared that, in an emergency situation, I won’t understand what people want me to do.” English is not her first language, and I can imagine that urgent orders coming from mouths hidden beneath masks might make it really hard to understand what to do and where to go. 

I told her I understood and that she didn’t have to go. 

‘You lazy slacker’ 

I really like my new lab, as weird as things have been, and want to do a good job here. 

“I’m not doing my best, though,” I said, on the phone to my sister. “I feel so stupid. I’m not understanding stuff quickly and not focusing. I read papers and just nothing sticks. I’m really afraid of disappointing my new boss! And I don’t want my boss to regret hiring me. You know they say when Isaac Newton was sent home to quarantine during the plague, that’s when he discovered some basic physics laws, right? I’m such a disappointment to science!” 

My sister, always able to see through bullshit, replied, “You mean you aren't doing your best in a new city alone in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic and economic disaster? I can't believe it! God, Beth. You lazy slacker.” 

It made me feel a little better. 

Far from danger? 

My friends in New York are facing a terrifying situation that I am not a part of. I feel like I abandoned them during this impossibly hard time. I text my sympathy, but it isn’t quite the same. I watch the numbers in the news articles climb. 

Here, I’m waiting for something. Waiting for things to get worse, or waiting for things to get better. Waiting for the lab to close, and waiting for the lab to reopen. Waiting for the outbreak to hit us like it’s hitting New York, or waiting for proof that our social distancing is saving us from that outcome. 

I hear more about healthy people dying from the virus in NYC, and I wonder if I might be one of them if it gets bad here. I wonder who would take care of Milo if I had to go to the hospital. 

I am, technically, quite alone. “I’m sorry you had to move here to a new city and then not be allowed to make any friends,” my PI tells me. But, somehow, I don’t feel fully alone. 

Whether it’s the bus driver who recognizes me, the dog owners who wave, the Skype and Zoom calls with my lab here, or friends in NYC, I feel OK here. An up-in-the-air type of OK, though.

I sit here in a type of limbo, with my heart and mind open, knowing it will get both better and worse.

If we survive this, then one day this empty lab in the empty building will be my work home, this apartment building with its closed rooms near the closed park in this city full of closed stores and restaurants will really become my home, and these people I see occasionally and from a distance and through screens will become my friends.

 
 
Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling.

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