Our pandemic year

COVID-19 changed us.

Collected by Darrick Meneken, Director of Communications 

These are some of our stories. Saving lives … teaching … postponing dreams … giving birth … staying home … coming back …

With the end seemingly near, we asked WAC members to share their year.

Mark Connor, MD

Hospitalist, EvergreenHealth

This past year was filled with many unique challenges, especially as a physician working at the hospital with the first nationally reported COVID-19 deaths. I never thought this year would be so physically and emotionally
challenging. When looking back on the year, themes of commitment, gratitude, and humanism continue to resonate.

First, knowing that a deadly virus was stalking me at work on a daily basis, I quickly had to come to terms with my own mortality and remind myself of the oath I took in medical school affirming my pledge to caring for others. I took solace in the fact that a life dedicated to the service of others is a life well-lived. That understanding allowed me to remain focused on my duty as a physician. The mortality of my patients depended on it.

Second, I feel a large sense of gratitude toward my incredible healthcare organization. At the onset of the pandemic, there was no manual, treatment algorithm, or robust guidance available for management of this lethal virus. But as physicians our task was clear from the onset—save as many lives as we could. Therefore, we started to read every available article and research publication and implement what we could into our collective practice. We communicated directly with physicians from China to learn everything possible and get a real “boots on the ground” understanding of the outbreak. Early in the pandemic we even published COVID-19 management recommendations that were utilized nationally by hospitals and medical practices. I am proud of the work we have done at EvergreenHealth
to help our community, state, and nation.

Finally, I still get emotional thinking of all those lost during this pandemic, specifically the multiple times I had to act as the communication proxy for a husband saying the final goodbye to a wife, or a daughter saying goodbye to a father. I get teary-eyed remembering those passionate words they asked me to share as their loved ones passed away in isolation. In conclusion, despite the exhaustion and unfathomable sadness from this pandemic, being a part of this fight has been a great honor.

Shawn Bonney

Director of WeeWACs

WeeWACs has always taken great pride and pleasure in partnering with WAC parents in the care of their children. We always want to be there to support families when they need us most. As life-changing and routine-interrupting as the COVID-19 pandemic was, it allowed us to become the “constant” that children could depend on. We never closed. We made a commitment to the Club and our families—we would make whatever adjustments necessary to remain open and accommodate those for whom working from home was not an option.

A small core group of teachers—the Fab Five, I call them—promised to limit risk of virus exposure by making work and home their sole contact with the world. While other centers had one or more outbreaks and subsequent shutdowns, WeeWACs managed to keep COVID-19 out of our doors. We are grateful to the families who willingly, and graciously, cooperated with whatever protocol needed to be established.

In return, the kids of WeeWACs got to keep their “safe place.” They had some of their favorite teachers, and could interact freely with some of their favorite friends. We had to temporarily give up some cherished traditions, such as
regular visits to Seattle Center via the Monorail, chartered van rides to local parks and other fun spots, and summer camps (there is nothing better than a summer filled with WeeWACs summer camps). But we created new ways for kids to nurture their sense of wonder, their zest for life, and their trust in the world. The arts, crafts, cooking, games, and bounce houses continued!

The pandemic robbed us of many things, some irretrievable. But at WeeWACs, laughs and hugs and singing and
bubble dance parties never ended. Neither has our determination to weather this storm and come out on the other side stronger and more eager than ever to be there for WAC children and families in the ways that matter most.

Isaac Tyson

Triathlete

Last year was going to be the year of many races for me. As a triathlete, my schedule was packed with several half-distance Ironman races and one full-distance Ironman, all of which would take months of swim, bike and run training to complete.

Following months of planning and preparation, I was well on my way to becoming the most fit I’ve ever been. Then COVID-19 happened. The WAC closed, and one-by-one races canceled.

Competitive athletes often judge themselves by their last performance or race. Well, my final race prior to the pandemic went terribly. Suddenly, I was faced with untold months before I could seek redemption. Or so I thought.

The virtual world of cycling exploded during quarantine, and platforms like ZWIFT have allowed me to compete in virtual cycling races from the comfort of my own home. Additionally, with Zoom calls I’ve been able to race “with” other teammates and create friendships I never would have expected with people from all over the country. Swimming in the WAC pool was also a much-needed escape from long days spent at home.

A year later, I’m excited to be using more WAC fitness facilities again. My 2020 race schedule was bumped to 2021, but it’s still unclear which races will happen. Either way, my newfound passion for virtual cycling is here
to stay.

Mick Newell

Senior Leasing & Property Manager; Union Square, Washington Holdings

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how quickly COVID shrank the downtown population. At Union Square, we saw our population go from around 7,000 daily to fewer than 1,000 overnight. For months, coming to work seemed like visiting an alternate reality. 

The streets were nearly empty, many buildings were boarded up, and the whiff of hand sanitizer floated through the air. Behind all the masked faces, downtown’s skeleton crew grew to know each other well. At Union Square, we remained open for tenants. As soon as the pandemic hit, our team began working to create as safe of an environment as possible for those who continued to come to their offices. With our close proximity to the WAC, it was great to see members who work in our buildings running across the street for a workout—when it was permitted—or grabbing lunch to go. I personally grew to love the WAC Cuban sandwich! As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, I look forward to seeing downtown come alive once again. I’ll know we’re on the right track when the crosswalk between Union Square and the WAC is busy once again!

Tom Norwalk

Visit Seattle, President & CEO

In late 2019, following a decade of record travel and tourism growth in Seattle and King County, our organization set an unusual goal for 2020. As the area’s official destination marketing organization, we wanted to make travel and tourism more of a shared community value. We wanted the industry and our many partners to be recognized for the economic impact they generate and provide to the community through the power of travel. Wow, the global pandemic delivered big time on that goal for us!

In March 2020, travel and tourism as we know it totally stopped and virtually disappeared overnight. I vividly remember walking to Pike Place Market one morning a couple of months into the shutdown. It was mid-May and I was struck by the quiet. The market was almost totally deserted along with the rest of downtown. It resembled a vacant movie set more than its normal vibrant self. For me, that is when the reality of
all the business, restaurant and hotel closures hit home. Along with lost jobs and ways of life, millions of dollars in visitor tax revenue disappeared due to travel restrictions and COVID safety concerns. The economic fallout of the pandemic and a year with virtually no tourism is difficult to fathom.

So here we are, full of hope and optimism that with widespread vaccinations the second half of 2021 will come back to life and that travel will eventually once again flourish.

There are a couple of things that the pandemic provided and reinforced for me:

  1. There is no substitute for being face to face. From online education to meetings and business events, virtual always falls short.
  2. We have learned that being able to travel, explore, see, and experience new destinations is part of our DNA. Travel and tourism will flourish again!

Although 2020 didn’t go as planned, the pandemic made clear the importance of a vibrant travel industry and the tremendous economic and social impacts created by the businesses that serve all those who visit our region.

Amy Labossiere

New Mom

I found out I was pregnant in January 2020. We had just attended The Main Event at the WAC and celebrated my husband Andre’s birthday. (I confirmed with my doctor that, yes, the baby was okay even with the weekend of celebration!) When the pandemic got serious in March 2020, I wasn’t showing at all. My husband got to see the progress of baby Lance grow, but it was strange that not many others did.

Although I was grateful for not getting random belly touches from strangers— I’ve heard horror stories about such things—I missed not celebrating my pregnancy with my friends and family.

The pandemic did allow for some serious nesting—we built a nursery!—and our house has never been more organized. We also made a sort of new family with the staff of a local restaurant. 

When baby Lance was ready to make his appearance, Andre and I made our way to the hospital, masks on, me screaming through contractions. I didn’t have to wear my mask while in labor, thank goodness! Lance was born September 21, 2020. He did not meet his grandparents until he was two weeks old and they tested negative for COVID-19. While there are certain things we missed during the pandemic, we were also very lucky to have such a bright light come out of 2020!

Nicole Winters

Teacher

What in the world is Zoom? That was my initial thought when I first heard that school was going to be online. It was my first year of teaching—which they say is the hardest year of your career—and we were being asked to do something that no one had ever prepared for. At first, we expected that we’d be closed for two weeks and back to our classrooms in no time. But then came Zoom.

In a time filled with mental, emotional, financial, and physical uncertainty, teachers were suddenly expected to reinvent the wheel of how they teach. We were stressed, scared, worried, and exhausted, but we kept going for the children. We do what we do for the children, and a global pandemic wasn’t going to get in our way!

Luckily, summer finally arrived and we could take a break—although anyone who knows a teacher knows that our summers are filled with getting ready for the new school year. What would that school year look like? Would we all still have a job? We just didn’t know.

Then came the news—virtual school for the fall! I was teaching 16 first-graders, all remote, through a computer screen, trying to plan fun, engaging, and intellectually stimulating lessons. There were days when I was at my computer 7 am–8 pm, turning everything we would normally do in-person into an electronic format. It was the most stressful time of my life, but my students quickly became my favorite people and made all the Zoom headaches worth it. I’m also incredibly grateful for the families who have been so supportive of me in this insane year.

After pushing our in-person return-to-school date back for months, we finally got word that it was happening. I was flooded with emotions. I was scared because I wasn’t in line for a vaccination anytime soon and our region’s rate of infection wasn’t going down. I was nervous about being in the building with students after almost a year away. And I was stressed because I really had no idea how I would teach 16 students in a classroom during a global pandemic.

We had the trainings, we made the preparations, and the day finally came. I didn’t sleep the night before. At 9:15 am on the day we reopened, I went outside to get my class. The cheering that came from those first-graders made every bad feeling go away.

As of this writing, we’ve been back for a few weeks and it’s honestly gone so much better than I ever expected. We wear masks the whole time; we sanitize and wash our hands quite often; we maintain six feet as much as possible; we don’t share any supplies; and we spend a lot of time in our seats. My students are doing their very best to stay safe at school, and being around them makes me happier more than anything. Is it still a scary thing? Absolutely. Do I still worry about my health? Every day. But we are doing what we can and, at the end of the day, I’m here for the students.

Mike Shepherd

Member of the Seattle Seawolves

The domino effect of the COVID-19 pandemic spared no one, including your Seattle Seawolves and Major League Rugby (MLR). The pandemic forced the league to shut down its third season in mid-March 2020 after only five weeks of competition. 

This eliminated the chance for our two-time MLR championship franchise to defend the title in year three. It was a tough blow. Although we can all agree it was necessary, it wasn’t easy to accept. Shutting down meant putting a stop, albeit temporary, to something that we players worked and sacrificed a long time to achieve. For a young league, it was also an unfortunate hurdle after what had been substantial growth up to that point.

I recall feeling dissatisfied from an athletic perspective. On top of the team’s goal of winning the league again, I had my own goals that went unfulfilled. Leading up to the shutdown I had built up several great statistics on the field, including games started, tackle counts, and scores. I had also made progress in related areas off the field, including body composition and work-life balance. It was difficult not to introduce the results of that hard work with a chance to perform.

Not only that, but a new challenge arose—how to keep the improvements going in an extended off-season! It was a tall order without a season, team, or traditional facilities or staff to work with. I’ll admit, my off-season report card would not show an A+ in all areas. But I found a silver lining among it all, which was a strengthening of my ability to adapt, to look in the mirror and ask: Am I tough enough? Humble enough? Can I make do with the cards that I’m dealt? Am I lacking intrinsic motivations? Am I sustaining healthy habits? These questions are pertinent to so many of us, athlete or not.

Most importantly to me, during the pandemic my wife and I were blessed with a healthy and beautiful baby girl (our first), who helped us gain a new and profound outlook on life. Looking back, I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to compete in 2020, even if that competition was cut short. I’m also grateful for the chance to compete again in 2021, for my family’s health, and for a job. Losing a season is hard, but so many have lost so much more. I think it’s important for all of us to take that into perspective.

—At press time, the Seattle Seawolves were slated to begin the 2021 season on March 20. The team’s home opener was set for May 2 at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. Learn more at seattleseawolves.com.

Bernice Ye

Comedian, Bride to Be

A notification popped up on my phone this past January: “A year ago today…” It shows photos of me and my girlfriends doing a champagne toast at a bridal shop in Ballard after I said “yes to the dress.”

My fiancé and I got engaged in December 2019 and decided that 2020 was our year. We just wanted to get married before I’m 40 and he’s 50 … you know!

Things seemed to be going so well, too. We found our ideal venue and secured a late September date. Our wedding was also why I joined the WAC—time to get in shape and look my best!

I forgot to mention, I’m originally from China and my entire family is still there. My fiancé’s family lives in South Carolina. So we are having not one, but TWO weddings—an American one, in Seattle, and a Chinese one in my hometown of Wuhan, the city now forever associated with COVID-19.

In a Chinese wedding, all the guests bring money as a gift. So the bigger the wedding, the more money the couple gets! Here in America, every guest costs you more money! What’s more, in America the bride’s family traditionally pays for the wedding. I couldn’t tell my parents that because in China the groom’s family pays. So to keep the pride of my parents, my fiancé and I are paying for both weddings! Romantic, right?

After a lot of scrambling and stress, by the end of February 2020, we had booked photographers, caterers, and guest lodging. We even had the Chinese wedding planned. Invitations were ready to go. Then, of course, came COVID.

My wedding dress has been hanging in my closet for more than a year. I don’t know about you, but after a Seattle
winter I don’t think I can fit into that dress anymore. If you see me in a WAC fitness class anytime soon, say hi. I need all the motivation I can get!

With any luck, our Seattle wedding will still take place on the last Saturday of September, a year later than we expected! As for the version in China, we’re still waiting for travel restrictions to ease.

Deborah Van Olst

Public Health Epidemiologist

Fourteen months ago, people often asked me to explain what an epidemiologist does. Not so anymore. (Note: We study diseases and population health.) Now, when I meet someone new they almost immediately ask me my thoughts on COVID-19.

My past year is best described as a roller coaster of activities and emotions. I work for a county public health department in the Bay Area. Our public health policies and actions are informed by data. However, as the first sick patients tested negative for known diseases, we faced intense pressure to figure out specifically what was happening with limited or no data.

Outdated data collection software and a small team of case investigators made gathering needed data and developing information difficult. There were days when I was afraid of the silent and deadly disease we knew so little about.

Unfounded conjecture and misinformation seeped into the national and local information void. The crisis evolved into organized chaos, but grassroots collaboration at the county, regional, and state levels soon provided a foundation for information sharing that accelerated analysis and hypothesis testing.

More than a year later, as we confront pandemic fatigue and a prolonged second surge, I am hopeful. We have learned a great deal about the disease and how to fight it. Vaccines are now available.

I am grateful for my colleagues and for the frontline workers who helped keep our communities sheltered and fed. I’m also thankful for my family, and my network of friends, including those at the WAC. Virtual social events, holiday meals to go, and the WAC’s online 90th anniversary celebration provided bright and rejuvenating respites during the very scary roller coaster ride of 2020.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to wear a mask, avoid group gatherings, and please get vaccinated.

Parth Shah

Assistant Professor Public Health Sciences Division, Fred Hutch

Like many of you, I could view this past year from different vantage points. But the one I want to share with you is the viewpoint of a research scientist thrown into the midst of the worst public health crisis in the history of our country. I look on this past year with grief for the people we have lost—family members, friends, co-workers—and for the things we have lost, including birthdays, graduations, and a simple meal out.

But I also look on the past year in wonderment of how Seattle’s scientific community persevered and became a global leader in the fight against this pandemic. Although tech companies have taken a lot of the spotlight in Seattle, I cannot overstate how incredibly fortunate we are to have such robust biomedical and healthcare institutions that have paved tangible ways to address this pandemic, from COVID-19
prevention and diagnosis to cutting-edge treatments.

I’m proud to be able to count myself among the many scientists and healthcare professionals who have worked restlessly since the beginning of 2020 to curb this pandemic. COVID-19 revealed many structural and
cultural flaws in our community, but it also has shown us how so many people—not just the scientists and healthcare workers—are putting their talents toward making a more resilient community. Those individuals and their stories help me remain optimistic when I go to bed each night and give me reason to wake up and get to work the next day.

Learn more about Parth Shah’s work at fredhutch.org/en/faculty-lab-directory/shah-parth.html.

As published in the April/May/June 2021 issue of WAC Magazine

—Posted April 2, 2021

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