• Omar Rutledge

My COVID Summer


A Lone Cabin in Utah

Hello again everyone! I’ve sat down and written, edited, and rewritten this blog post several times before finally posting today. Every time I thought I had reached a point where I could gather my thoughts and write them out, some other new event caused me to pause and rethink what I’ve wanted to say. So much has happened since April, hasn’t it? 2020 is turning out to be some year. We are certainly living in a historic moment in time, perhaps the most important in our collective recent history, but it seems that our story isn’t playing out in a positive light. The story isn’t over either, far from it. We will only know the true magnitude of this moment perhaps only decades into the future, but I certainly hope that positive change is afoot.

First of all, I want to truly thank everybody who graciously and generously donated funds to help cover my expenses after needing to leave MIT as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown in March. With hiccups in my stipend payments and an empty checking account after fleeing the hot zone of the East Coast, you guys helped me through my darkest financial moments during the initial shock wave of the pandemic. I was able to get groceries, gas, an oil change after the long trek from Massachusetts, and a PO Box so I could receive mail away from “home”. Thank you all! I’ve gone ahead and removed the donate button from the last post because I am okay for now. Sadly, I know that isn’t the case for so many other people in the country and around the world.

Being on the road driving across America during the pandemic has given me such an interesting perspective. Not only are the numbers of infections and deaths in the US staggering by any measure, the economic toll has impacted even more people in ways that we are still trying to understand. Each time I see the infection numbers, I get sickened knowing things aren’t getting better, especially now. Some countries have been fairly successful at containing the virus, however since there are no vaccines at the moment, even these once safe countries are now contending with rising infection numbers. We in America are definitely showing the world how not to go about it. This is one leading statistic we should be ashamed of. As this post is published, there are 9.4 million infections and 236,135 deaths in the US! I’ve edited this line several times since starting to write this post, and each time I change the numbers I feel absolutely terrible. Things are just not getting better. Despite this, many people are going about their lives as if nothing is happening. Honestly, what is there to do as an individual?

A Playground Roped-Off Due to COVID

When the outbreak first began, I think it's safe to say that many people took the pandemic seriously. Closures of schools, businesses, and government offices made everyone consider the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, the cracks in our society began to show under this strain. Understaffed and poorly-managed nursing homes became incubators for the virus. The homeless had no place to shelter. People whose jobs were once despised became celebrated and labeled "essential", although many weren't given proper protective equipment or hazard pay. That theme seems to echo of the past, and why wouldn't it? When has our modern world ever truly valued the people behind the services they provide, such as teachers, nurses, social workers, and public servants? Nevertheless, as many people lost jobs entirely, those with "essential" jobs were at least grateful for pay, but at what cost?

In a time where everything seems chaotic and uncertain, it helps to look to the past to determine if there are any parallels to our present moment. We can trace that parallel moment in history forward to possibly glean what may happen in our future. I’ve seen a couple of reviews of the 1918 Pandemic which were very illuminating, but also a bit disheartening. In the first, a video on YouTube, the host, “The History Guy”, provides a good general overview of the pandemic. He shows that hiding infection numbers or blaming countries for the pandemic’s origin isn’t anything new. (It didn’t begin in Spain, by the way.) He also shows that subsequent waves of infection took an even larger toll than the initial wave. By ignoring the disease, it became evident that many more people died than was necessary.

As a result, the flu from 1918 never really went away. If you’re into podcasts, this one from Radiolab goes more in-depth about the flu virus itself, which surprisingly is still infecting people today. It is part of the flu strains we try to vaccinate against every year. The episode shows that this coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the one that causes COVID-19, just might be something that we are all going to have to get used to since it wasn’t contained initially. The virus, regardless of a vaccine, might just be here for good.

What does that mean? What should we do? I say, vote. Even as the current administration has cut funding to the Postal Service, during the pandemic, which is sure to hurt mail-in voting, it is the only way to put into office people that have some idea of how the government is supposed to work. Times like these are exactly when the government is needed the most. Too many people, genuinely disgusted with the government as a whole, have voted in people whose expressed mission is to disrupt the government and prevent it from operating, even to “shut it down”. The founders of this nation would never have wanted the people to destroy what they created, but they did make it in such a way that the people, we the people, have the power to change it. We can make the government be what we want it to be. When did we as a nation forget this?

The American Experiment is not yet over. It never ended. We must stand up and demand more from our government by placing good, honest people with a strong knowledge of how government is supposed to work. Would you hire a cook to fix your plumbing? How about a mechanic to do your surgery? No? Well, this is just as serious. We did not become the “greatest nation on Earth” with a weak and feckless government. Quite the opposite. We’ve seen what disruptions to our government cause. We’ve seen what a do-nothing government is capable of. We need to vote out of office every sheepish politician afraid to step out of bounds with the current President and replace each them with people who actually value and respect all Americans.

Regardless of how I wished for things to turn out, the pandemic forced many academic institutions to close, including my own. I finished my last blog post after finally arriving in Colorado on my COVID-shutdown-induced roadtrip. Here’s a little bit of what I’ve been doing since.


Easter in Colorado

I arrived in Denver on Easter Weekend. A couple of veteran friends of mine offered their homes to me during this time. We made an arrangement so that I would go to “work” at one house and go “home” to the other afterward. While it was a good idea in theory, in reality it didn’t last too long. During this road trip, there had been three significant situations that taught me a little more about myself, and all of them involved prolonged isolation. This first lesson was simple: I can’t go immediately from being isolated to living with a bunch of people. I just wasn’t used to being around other people, so moving into a home with a several others inside was too much for me to handle. It was unfortunate because everyone was so cordial and genuinely concerned for me, but after living alone for several years, then really isolating from all human contact during the first part of my road trip, it was too much to try to sleep inside someone else’s home and feel safe and comfortable. After a couple of weeks of trying to make the “home” situation work, I moved back into the van and started parking in the local Wal-Mart parking lot overnight. I don’t know why, but I felt I didn’t need a home. In a strange way, I felt I already had one. I had the van.

Once I had the sleeping arrangements figured out, I needed a place to cook with the doors open without drawing much attention from onlookers. It’s one thing to be in a van in a parking lot at night when it doesn’t look occupied. It’s a little different when the doors are open and you can see me doing things inside. I found a cheap storage facility not too far from the Wal-Mart that ended up serving as a great spot where I could work on the van or sizzle some eggs and sausage with a little coffee in the morning. Cooking had become much more important after getting on the road since I began avoiding restaurants as a result of the pandemic. By requiring myself to prepare my own food, it forced me to make healthier choices. It was certainly an unexpected surprise.

Things didn’t work out with the “home” situation, but “work” was remarkable. I utilized my other friend’s place (we’ll call him “Joe”) as an office during the day to take online meetings and continue to work on my last class as a student. Unfortunately, after the shutdown, the one class for which I was a teaching assistant for was forced to go online, as were all other classes. In a way, I was lucky that the class was large and had several TAs working to support the professor. Since I was on the road and had little time or space to help teach, the other TAs were nice enough to help pull my weight while I got my bearings. All of the TA’s sections were being combined online anyway, but I still felt awful relinquishing my small recitation class. Unfortunately, I know I wasn’t the only one struggling to figure things out after the campus was shut down. Many thanks to all of the other TAs who helped move everything online!

My final class as a student for the PhD program was a course entitled “Medical Devices” offered by the Health, Sciences, and Technology program. Once the class moved online, it became quite difficult to keep up once I was on the road. By the time I arrived in Colorado, the bulk of the work remaining was centered around a team project with a few other students. This was especially helpful since we could all divide the work and tackle it together. In the end, what we “developed” was a material that would allow open-heart surgery without the development of scar tissue that inevitably restricts cardiac function upon chest closure. I had quite a bit of fun with this last project, and we even won a class award for best presentation! Once I had a stable place to have Zoom meetings and work on school, I felt I was finally able to focus enough to be productive. I had a great time with my group and was happy that my final class ended on such a positive note. With school finished for the semester, and heading towards a summer with a growing pandemic, I felt I had the time to dive deeply into the coronavirus test I mentioned during the end of the last post.

I was thinking about trying my hand at developing a coronavirus test since I felt that was the best way to stop the economic impact of the pandemic. While I wasn’t a biologist, let alone a virologist, I was training to be a neuroscientist, and while at first it may not seem like a useful skill to have in virology, any scientist studying any topic has a fairly particular way of investigating a new thing. The first step is to dive into the literature, and nowadays, it’s so much easier with everything online. When I hear of the ways that scientists had to communicate with each other across the world via mail and wait for responses, if they came at all, back in the 1800 and early 1900s, I can hardly believe anything was done at all.

Within days I was able to surround myself with the latest papers being published on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. I really learned a lot within the first few weeks of heading down this path. I was even able to develop a type of test, at least in theory. However, as I didn’t have years of schooling understanding the basics of virology, I felt like I was wasting a lot of time trying to catch up. I also started to run into technical problems that I didn’t have the slightest clue how to solve. Eventually I reached out to a professor I know in biological engineering and he was able to share his experience finding out that things are almost always harder than they seem. This test idea I had was no different, and without resources or access to lab equipment, it started to seem like an impossible mountain to climb. After a few weeks, I chose to give it up. The world was seeing higher infection rates, but this wasn’t going to be a problem I was going to solve. If you want to try your hand at it, below is my whiteboard during my journey.

My COVID Test Whiteboard

Meanwhile, the people whose job it was to solve the issue were sleeping at the wheel. By the end of May, things were starting to get a little loose again with the restrictions and many were choosing not to wear masks. Summer was approaching and people were feeling antsy. I wanted to get away too. With the test not panning out, and with classes finished, I felt like I didn’t have much tying me down to Colorado anymore, so I decided to go to California. Why not, right? I didn’t necessarily reach out to friends during this trip to California. I just wanted to be alone, take a breather, and try to re-calibrate. How was I going to manage living in this new world? What was this summer going to bring?


Sunset near Moab, UT

I took a week to get to California. In between, I completely isolated from all human contact. I stayed away from the radio, didn’t check for cell signal, and enjoyed being alone for the duration of the drive, but after a few days, something interesting started to happen. Without another human voice, even through the radio, I started to feel a little…different. I don’t know how to explain it, but not having any human interaction at all made me start to panic a bit. It was such a strange feeling that I hadn’t experienced before. Later, I would read that there are some real changes that occur in the brain during serious social isolation, and these changes aren’t necessarily good. I had heard of reports from people in isolation in prisons that spoke of having hallucinations and delusions while isolated. I hadn’t quite gotten that far, but I was feeling something. This was the second thing I learned about myself: real complete isolation is not good for my mental well-being. Most interestingly, as soon as I got to a place where I had radio reception again, those feelings of anxiety started to wane. Just hearing another human voice was enough to calm my nerves. NPR saved my sanity in the desert! I’ll have to donate to them during the next fundraising drive.

The Pacific Ocean near Big Sur, CA

I arrived around Memorial Day weekend and had a great time feeling the ocean breeze again. I only spent one quick night on the ocean. I just wanted to see the Pacific again. Somehow it was the grounding experience I was looking for. After camping on the Great Highway in Carmel, I started driving back to Colorado. There was no rush to return. I took my time heading back. I just needed a little time to figure what I was going to do next. This time I made an effort to always have radio reception. It was so nice to find a small pad of public land somewhere in the middle of Nevada or Utah and camp out for the night. The stars were beautiful. Most nights, the air would be crisp and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. After a few more nights in the desert, I got back into Denver on the news of protests around the world on the killing of George Floyd. I remember thinking “oh no, not again,” when I heard of his murder, but this time was different.

Race has always been a tricky concept for me. I’ve always been conscious of my race, or at least of the perception of my race by others. I’m quite the racial mix, and ever since I can remember I’ve been asked the very demeaning question, “What are you?”. As a smart-ass six-year-old, I used to answer, “I’m human, what are you?”, but whatever you want to call me now, growing up I never was Black enough for the Black kids, or Latino enough for the Latino kids, and I certainly didn’t look White. I’ve always been this “other” to every group to which I am a part. Therefore, it’s been hard for me to have a sense of community based on appearances. Like I said, race has always been tricky for me.

Maybe I don’t understand how people can be driven so much to racism because I’ve never actually been surrounded by people who actually look like me, you know, mixed-race people, or more specifically, Afro-Latinos. Even so, when it comes to police, I am almost always identified as being Black. I’m not perfect, so I hope it’s not a surprise that I’ve received citations from the police in the past. On the occasional speeding ticket that I’ve obtained, under the race heading, the box next to “BLACK” was always checked. I don't mind, but I know how I’m viewed by the police. Growing up in Texas, stories of police brutality and sanctioned racism abounded, especially in East Texas. Afterall, Juneteenth is a celebration of the freeing of the last slaves, in East Texas. This idea of racist brutality is nothing new, but in a way, coming out of the desert into the inescapable reality that, in this nation, I am and will always be viewed as an “other” was like coming out of a cave into the blinding light. Back to reality.

Volcanic Plains in Nevada

I wanted to participate in the protests, but I wasn’t going to put myself at risk for catching the virus. Not when I was living in the van. The last thing I needed was to get sick, but it was wonderful to see so many other people around the world stand up, take that risk, and say that enough was enough. We are in the year 2020! We should be better than this! And yet, with our own president fomenting division and outright supporting racism, the pillars supporting this great nation began to crack. Protests broke out into riots. White supremacists patrolled streets while police watched. Some police even offered water bottles to their racist supporters. Federal troops moved into the nation’s capitol and other cities across the country. What was happening? All the while, coronavirus deaths continued to rise, and no one was trying to curb the tide.

I tried sticking to myself during this time. I chose to work on the van as much as I could. I needed to replace my brakes, so I did. I needed to flush the differential, so I did that too. Probably the best (and easiest) improvement I made to the van was adding Sumo Springs to the coils and bump stops. Since adding all of the interior insulation and cabinetry, the vehicle weight had increased tremendously. I haven’t actually weighed the van, but I know just how important weight distribution is. I had to learn the hard way when I had too much weight on one side on the original design and nearly rolled over on some sharp turns. One thing I hadn’t considered was the constant weight on the shocks and leaf springs. Over time, the vehicle started sagging in the back, and when I’d hit a bump, the back would bounce quite a bit. Once I added the Sumo Springs, the van popped right back up after a bump. It was great! I’m not much of a product reviewer, but I must say these were a nice addition.

Working on the Differential

The month of June was mostly spent working on the van, but as I ran out of things I could do, I began to think of other ways to occupy my time. It was one thing to work on the van, but it didn’t stimulate my thinking very much. While all of my projects from MIT were on hold, I still had my unpublished MRI coil that I could work on. I also wanted to enjoy the ocean again, so I decided to drive back out to California. I contacted one of my old lab leaders to see if I could spend some time in the lab reading and writing and he agreed. Luckily, there was a shower and kitchen in the building, so for a few weeks, I hunkered down and read as much as I could on MRI coils and technology. The key issue was trying to fit my coil design within the context of previously published MRI coils. While I spent quite a bit of time reading, what I concluded was that there were still quite a few things that remained before I could publish my results.


Mountains in Stanislaus National Park, CA

Back in 2017, I worked with a computer simulation program to design a new MRI coil that would allow transmission and reception at 74.95 MHz and 298 MHz, the resonance frequencies of carbon-13 and hydrogen. A key problem to solve is called coupling where the two frequencies interfere with each other. I created a nifty way to mitigate this coupling issue, which turned out remarkably well in simulation, but there were some key issues that I hadn’t addressed in my prior simulations that were in the literature. I simply hadn’t considered issues like eddy currents along the shielding of the coil. There are ways to fix this issue, I just hadn’t incorporated these techniques in my design. All wasn’t lost, it just meant that I had even more to do with the project. That was fine. I worked on the project long enough to re-familiarize myself with the field and my current status on the project, and to make a plan for completing it. Heading towards the end of July, I was starting to get the itch to head back to Boston.

I was still having meetings with my advisor and colleagues throughout the summer, and towards the end of July there was talk of opening the campus for the Fall semester. The whole reason why I left New England was that I didn’t have a place to work anymore. With the school closed, my access to my office was gone. If the school was going to reopen again, I could head back and continue working on my PhD. The third year was fast approaching, and the first semester of the third year is the qualifying exam, a written and oral exam that is the barrier between being a PhD student and advancing to candidacy. Needless to say, it is an important milestone requiring full focus for preparation. If the school was going to open, it was time to head back.

I knew I needed to be back in Massachusetts by the end of August as my vehicle tags were set to expire, so it was nice to know I was heading back to a place that would be opening in time for my arrival. It was bittersweet. It was also going to be the end of my road trip. I built the van to avoid paying rent while in grad school, but there was no way I would have known the endeavor would result in using it as a refuge during a pandemic. It was a nice refuge for something I built with my own hands! With a collection of photos and stories to chronicle my road trip, I got back on the road, left California and headed for Massachusetts.

Full Moon at Sunrise in Nevada

I drove back to Denver to close out my storage unit and pack everything up. I really didn’t want to leave Colorado for a number of reasons, but I really didn’t want to leave my friend Joe. Throughout the entire ordeal, he was such a strong and stable person who genuinely cared about my well-being and took measures to ensure my safety. He gave the keys to his home and said to come by whenever. He even cooked for me. I know there are lots of you out there who care for me, and would probably do the same thing, but there was something unique about our connection. The veteran aspect was, of course, one major line of similarity, but he was just all around a good guy. It’s hard to find real genuine people that feel like family. He was like family who really helped me out in a time of need. I hope I will be able to repay his generosity someday. I need to be more like him. Maybe we all do.

The last thing I learned about myself during this trip was also based in isolation, sort of. During my time in California, I ate basically the same thing every day. Food has always been something that was viewed as only a necessity by me. I’ve often said that if I could receive all of the nutrients that I needed each day through a simple pill, I’d take it! Since that pill doesn’t exist, I just get comfortable with a few dishes I can easily make and stick with them. Maybe my Army experience plays a role in not caring about edible monotony. However, when I got back to Denver, Joe made a delicious lamb wrap on the grill and it was absolutely amazing. There was an absolute party in my mouth with each bite, and I was genuinely happy. It was such a novel feeling to be gaining from food! Pure bliss. This form of culinary isolation, and the subsequent response, was so jarring that I had to make a note. “The various salts and spices are awakening my taste buds from their deep slumber as I slowly consume this lovely delight.” It certainly was a joy.

Sunset in Colorado

The road back to Massachusetts was long, and this time there were outbreaks of COVID that I needed to dodge along the way. There were also a lot of “red” states between CO and MA. This meant two things: 1) lots of people have somehow believed this virus only affects one political party and members of the other party weren’t wearing masks, and 2) I don’t look White. For a number of reasons, I did not want to interact with anyone that I didn’t need to along the way. The few times I did, I didn’t feel safe.

In Missouri, I stopped to get gas somewhere and it didn’t take more than a minute for the gas station to be surrounded by pickup trucks full of unmasked, rowdy White men. I made sure I had my veteran hat on when I went inside to pay for gas. No one was wearing masks, including the clerks. Some of the men came in and looked me up and down quite hard. An old woman without a mask walked up to me and said, “Whoo-wee, what do we have here?”. This was certainly not a safe place by any measure. I quickly paid, got outside, pumped, and left. Where was I? It was like traveling back in time. Was this the “Great America” some are trying to bring back?

Corn Field in Kansas

I could write out a few more interactions I had along the way, but suffice it to say that the concept of “safe spaces” for people of color is lacking, especially in parks and recreation in some of these states. This idea of having a safe space is just as much a perceptual issue as much as it is one based in objective measures. I could just say that I am an American, hell, one that fought for this country, and I deserve a damn space in a state park if I pay for it. But at the same time, if I don’t feel welcomed, if everyone is staring because I'm different, if I don’t feel safe, then that assertion is no longer based in enjoyment but rather in defiance. Why? Why should I have to demand anything? Why can’t I just enjoy another day at the lake like everyone else? Well, wondering why wasn’t going to change anything. After a while, I just started parking on the side of the highways at night. I was just trying to get across the country as quickly as I could anyway.

Within a couple of weeks I finally arrived in Boston. I made it just in time to get my tags renewed without a hitch. It was a bit surreal getting back to the place I left five months before. MIT started a COVID testing program that requires people who wish to have access to campus to get tested twice a week. The Institute wasn’t fully open, so the gym was still closed and access was limited only to my main building of work, but at least I could get started on studying for my qualifying exam.


COVID Testing Trailer at MIT

It took a couple of weeks to get settled and into a new routine, but since September, I’ve been working quite diligently on my research proposal. The topic? PTSD and social isolation. Yeah, those three events I mentioned before really got me thinking. Is there an interaction between the development of PTSD and perceived loneliness? Does one make the other worse? There is a little bit of research on the topic, but not much. I’m currently developing a research proposal that might shed some light on these ideas and perhaps offer some answers.

It's not easy trying to create novel research, and I have been super busy since getting back. I forced myself to push this post out today, Election Day, but I hope to be posting much more regularly now that I have my office again. My hope is to post an update after my qualifying exams, so wish me luck! Thanks for taking the time to read this exceptionally long post. I'll try to keep it shorter next time.


Take care and stay safe out there.


-Omar

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