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Life in abeyance

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, in the year 2020, I woke up to the grimly familiar feeling of a runny nose. Having already dismissed the itch in the back of my throat from the past two days as the universal autumn-temperature-drop throat itch, I found myself unable to ignore this dreaded drip.

On the Duke symptom monitoring app, I tentatively clicked “My symptoms have worsened since my last report,” then toggled “Runny nose” under my displayed symptoms. I then updated my friends on my symptom report, since they had previously told me rumors of people getting  ~disappeared~ (that is, being placed in precautionary quarantine) after reporting just a headache or a cough. 

I only have two online synchronous classes and two club Zooms on Wednesday, so I plotted out the rest of my day, blocking off time to read Naomi Paik’s “Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary” and Plato’s “Meno.” Preparing myself to be hyper-productive, I scribbled down a checklist of all the tasks I had to complete before Thursday.

Around 11 a.m., I received a phone call from an unidentified number in Durham. Assuming it was from Duke Student Health, I picked up and was (either luckily or sadly) right. They questioned me briefly on my symptoms, asked for which West dorm I lived in, and which building, and which room, then told me to dial and reserve a time for a drive-thru test in a few minutes once they’d registered me into the system.

Quickly, I texted a group of friends to let them know that I was not, in fact, getting ~disappeared~. I believed I only had to self-quarantine and get an extra COVID-19 test. HAHA LITTLE DID I KNOW. Man, how sweetly innocent and naïve I used to be. Only half an hour later after the first call, I received the next one. Though I cannot remember the friendly feminine voice’s exact words, the first two sentences (right after I picked up the phone and confirmed that I was indeed Jocelyn Chin) went something like this: “Hello, this is Duke Isolation Care Team. Your new room assignment will be Avana 2713 Room 307.”

To my credit, I remained terribly calm, even after finishing the half-hour long call and reading the follow-up email of instructions that was over 2000 words long. T’was quite the operation. My schedule was absolutely hijacked as I alerted my friends that I would indeed be ~disappeared~. Stuffing my checklist as a bookmark into page 19 of Paik, I packed up a suitcase and backpack, threw on a jacket and ate the lunch a friend dropped off for me. Then, after one last Zoom class in my dorm, I turned off my lights, locked the door and walked to the designated pickup location marked on a detailed map that had been included in the hella extensive instruction email.

Thus, I was whisked away. I sat in the back of a dark brown van and watched the trees pass along the highway, blurring like the stability in my life. Kidding: I’m just being dramatic here. We were only on the highway for one exit, and I was genuinely enjoying the experience of being completely clueless and utterly helpless. Fun times. However, the van was indeed dark brown, and the translucent plastic partition between the back row of the van and the driver’s seat up front did not help to ease my 75-bpm heart rate.

We pulled up to Avana, my new prison. It was clean and new and neatly furnished. There was a new pack of Tide and dryer sheets sitting on my own washing machine and dryer. I walked through my roughly 1,000-square-foot apartment and opened every door, checked for cameras, admired the stocked fridge and freezer, then dragged my dark wooden desk from the foot of the bed to the window-side. So began my college hiatus.

The next morning, with my life in abeyance, I opened my fridge before every Zoom class for a snack because honestly why not; it’s free food and I’m a college student. However, upon reconsideration I realized the food is technically not free because it’s definitely paid for out of all our tuition. No wonder Duke costs almost $80,000 a year. Our resources are absolutely no joke, and neither were the Sabra hummus and pretzels. Man, I’ve missed hummus.

I was COVID-19 tested the next afternoon at the drive-thru site near the University Hospital. I haven’t failed many tests in this lifetime, but this was the one test I most desperately wanted to pass, no matter how stocked the apartment fridge remained. The process of testing was intimidating yet extremely efficient. Arrowed signs for the testing site began two blocks away from the white tent, which was large as a basketball court and decked out with the team of health-care workers, all donned up in raincoats and masks. The set-up of the station reminded me of the police tent in “Money Heist” outside the Bank of Spain, with the same levels of intensity and equipment. I was given a seat to sit on in the center of a parking space (this was drive-thru test site after all, but my dark van #2 would not have fit). I provided identification, and received two packets, the first labeled “Pandemic Response Network: Duke Community Health Watch” and the second “Infection Prevention Recommendations for Individuals Confirmed to Have, or Being Evaluated for, 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Who Receive Care at Home.”

After getting tested (ouch my right nostril), being driven back to Avana 2713 and taking a bath while listening to a podcast about the end of the American Empire, I picked up my dinner from the large meal box next to the stocked refrigerators on the first floor. I ate dinner while sitting in my two-and-a-half-hour philosophy lecture, during which I received an email informing me of a new update to MyChart. Of course, I couldn’t wait for class to end, so I quickly logged on and checked my test updates. HALLELUJAH!! I tested negative!! I had been deported from campus for nothing but a cold!!! What an anti-climactic end to my spontaneous vacation.

I received a phone call from Student Health within the next ten minutes, informing me that I was COVID-free and would be contacted soon by the Isolation Care team. They did reach out a few minutes later, instructing me again through both the call and follow-up email on how to clean the apartment and leave. I was allowed to either Uber or ask a friend to pick me up, as the vans had stopped running already since it was nearing 8 p.m. No dark van #3 for me! Two friends drove to Avana to pick me up, bringing me a cake on which they had iced, in crimson red, “COVID,” with a lopsided little heart. “We ran out of space to write ‘free’ on the cake” they told me.

This past week, when I found out that first-years already on campus would continue to live on campus in the spring, I skipped back to my dorm with joy. Though I was lowkey kidnapped by my own university, this adventure has led me to trust Duke more. I rest assured knowing that my school is serious with their claims of isolating and quarantining potential COVID patients, having experienced first-hand the resources that this school has to offer (not just academic or research resources, but certainly lifestyle resources can be just as important). 

Though it may be the peak-end rule shining through as I reflect on my isolation experience, I do appreciate not only the COVID *heart* cake from my friends but also the efficiency and grace with which Duke Student Health and the Isolation Care Team handled my situation, and hundreds of others. On the Duke COVID Testing Tracker, the Cumulative Results this week indicates that 701 students have been placed in precautionary quarantine. I am a part of that number, and while being uprooted from your life is not necessarily a pleasant experience, at least it was a dramatic story that I can now write about.

Taking a little break from the constant project and essay grinding in the dorm room was also quite nice. I had tossed my little checklist bookmark into the trash at Avana 2713 my last night there, choosing to leave behind my innocently orderly attempts to schedule my existence and fully embracing the spontaneity this life has to offer.

Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

Editor's note: This column has been updated to remove information that misleadingly implied Duke is using Jarvis dorm for precautionary quarantine. It is used as isolation space for students who have tested positive for the virus. This article has also been updated to clarify that the author is referring to precautionary quarantine when referencing "being ~disappeared~", to clarify that Duke tuition and fees are almost but not fully $80,000 per year and to reflect that not all students pay the full cost of attendance due to financial aid. 

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