By Claudia Villeda
Around 25 students are gathered in a classroom in McClurkan waiting for their Theories of Communication course to start.
A teaching assistant is sitting at the front of the room with a camera next to her. Students are groggy but still chatty. Everyone looks to the front of the room when a face is suddenly projected on the whiteboard.
This semester face-to-face 15-week classes are back. The fall 2021 semester might feel like a return to normal for many students and faculty after almost two years of living in a pandemic. For immunocompromised people, the realities of the pandemic are still very present in their lives.
Jeffrey Wells, chair of department of communication studies and assoicate professor, continues to adjust his life according to the coronavirus which includes teaching all of his classes remotely.
Wells, who is a multiple sclerosis, or better known as MS, patient, must still take precautions against the virus.
An immunocompromised person is more susceptible to infectious diseases and would have a harder time fighting it off due to a weakened immune system. Being immunocompromised can come in different ways. Immunosuppression is when the immune system is purposely weakened due to medication, said GoodRx. According to the Guardian, three percent of Americans have immunosuppression.
“[It] is a disease that affects your nerves and your nervous system and your muscles kind of weaken, and so I have trouble walking. So one of the things with that disease is that, like with all immunosuppressant diseases, your immune system kicks into overdrive to kind of fight the MS and it eats away at what’s called the myelin, which is kind of like, a protective coating over your nerves,” said Wells.
He describes myelin as the protective coating of an electrical wire. The rubber and insulation get eaten away and the copper wires are exposed. All the energy from the wire is exposed, he said.
When Trevecca announced that classes would be moved online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, it was still not safe for Wells to be living in a dorm with his wife Laurie Wells, resident director of Georgia Hall.
Wells has moved through different places to stay in isolation.
“My boss, Dr. Lena Welch and her husband, Steve, invited me to come to their home, and so I finished almost, exactly to the day, two months at their home in Hermitage. So that was the first place that I went for isolation.”
He moved back to the dorms during the summer when residents left. When school started again, Wells moved to an apartment in Benson Hall.
“So I was down there for the entire year, the academic year 2020-2021, so both spring and summer, and at that point in time, I learned to write online courses, so all of my courses last year were online courses.”
This spring, Wells and his wife Laurie received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and were able to move back in together. Everything felt almost normal as they could be living together again and be around each other without masks.
“And then the delta variant came. Because of the immunosuppressant drug I’m on, they weren’t sure how much coverage I had from the vaccine in the spring. So my doctor again said, ‘you really should not be living in the dorm’, and so now I’m living in UTA, in one of the six apartments where the door opens right directly outside … This time, however, I am not staying in my apartment, for the most part, to teach.”
Wells teaches virtually full-time from his office this semester. He teaches three communication courses every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“I get up early. It takes me about two or two and a half hours to get ready because of my MS because I have to do lots of stretching exercises and it’s also a disease that has a lot of fatigue related to it, so you’re tired a lot,” said Wells.
His wife Laurie picks him up from UTA in her car and drives him to Tidwell, where his office is.
Bella Agee, a junior organizational communication major, is the teaching assistant in Well’s Theories of Communication class. As his teaching assistant, Agee handles all the technology needed for the classroom. She sets the camera, works the computer and loads the Zoom meeting.
“Dr. Wells and I stay in contact to where if there’s something that he — an activity or something — wants to be done that day, I’m kind of, how he’s put it, his presence. I’m kind of Dr.Wells in the classroom… I’m his hands and feet in the classroom since he can’t be there,” said Agee.
Meaghan Larkins, a junior communication studies major, has Wells for theories of communication as well as her academic advisor.
“I don’t think much would change if it was in-person versus online because he’s already made the class very interactive and fun. He always makes sure we understand the material. I love our discussions,” said Larkins.
After teaching three classes three days a week, he works on administrative work, prepares for classes and grades all in his office.
“I pretty much stay in my office and I don’t allow anybody to visit me in my office.”
Tuesday and Thursday when he does not teach classes, he stays in his apartment to work.
“I pretty much just work all day. I’m the chair of the department, as well as a professor, so I do administrative work and I prepare for classes and grade and things like that,” said Wells.
In the evenings, Wells spends time with his wife. She brings him dinner and they eat together. They still need to practice social distancing and wearing masks when not eating because of her job as Georgia Hall resident director.
Wells does not see many people in person throughout the day, but he thinks this year is an improvement from the last. He enjoys seeing his teaching assistants and other faculty members even if it’s from a distance.
Wells and his wife Laurie Wells still find ways to spend time together despite not being able to live together.
“It’s pretty tough because we’ve been married for 27 years… But we do spend time together in person, just distanced and masked. We FaceTime a lot during the day to talk several times a day. It’s, yeah, not the best but it’s what we have to do right now to keep him protected as much as possible,” said Laurie Wells.
Laurie Wells described what their typical weekend together looks like. They spend time driving around either for errands or just sightseeing.
“I’ll go to Walmart and the grocery store, things like that. Do our shopping and he just sits in the car while I go in and he’ll be answering emails and stuff in the car,” said Laurie Wells.
Sunday morning they both attend church at Trevecca Community Church virtually. Jeffrey Wells mentioned that he livestreams into a Sunday school class every week.
“Sometimes we’re in our separate places watching virtually. But we get together for lunch and I’ll order takeout, or I like this weekend, I cooked a roast and he came over and ate dinner over here together. Then we usually end up watching a movie together later that day,” said Laurie Wells. “I’m hoping that more people get vaccinated and the numbers start going down. And ultimately my hope is for him to at least, by the end of next semester, to be able to move back.”
Vaccinations are not required on campus like masking is. With vaccinations being widely available, students and faculty are encouraged to get vaccinated. Currently, the vaccination rate at Trevecca is about 56 percent for students and 76 percent for faculty, according to Samantha Craighead, resident healthcare provider.
“I think vaccination is a great way to prevent severe complications. I think the more people that are vaccinated, the less likely we will have severe outcomes. It’s well demonstrated that people who are unvaccinated are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized than an unvaccinated individual and that’s at a national level,” said Craighead.
However, Wells thinks requiring vaccinations gets close to messing with freedoms. It is difficult to mandate that somebody take medicine, especially when it has been so politicized, he said.
“I think that it is good that we are encouraging vaccinations and that we’re giving incentives for vaccinations. I don’t think that there’s any other way, though, to go without masks. I believe that it works, and I believe that it’s necessary.”
Wells had never been a person to struggle with depression, but living in isolation last summer was beginning to affect his mental health. Amidst uncertainty about a deadly virus and civil unrest due to the presidential election and racial inequality, 2020 was a heavy year for many.
“All of those things affected me, and I think I was battling some depression, however, getting to see my wife on almost a daily basis kept me out of that for the most part. Anytime I could, I would try to go somewhere to walk in the park, that was helpful. I also put a bird feeder outside my window and then birds came. That was beautiful, that took my attention away from being by myself. And then the urban farm brought the goats over to do their grazing in the little wooded area behind Benson. That was enjoyable. So anything related to animals kind of picked up my spirits, but I don’t think I ever fell into a true, deep clinical depression,” said Wells.
Wells does not have a bird feeder in his current UTA apartment. “I ended up giving it to somebody because I thought we’re not going to need this anymore, then the delta variant arrived and yeah… I’m gonna get him another one for that apartment because that really did help,” said Laurie Wells. She then mentioned that they are in the process of talking about getting an emotional support animal.
“Just to help me emotionally being by myself so much and him being by himself, and maybe share the animal somehow. I don’t know, we just started talking about this, but I think for him, and I shouldn’t say what he needs, I think that would help him, emotionally. I know he gets depressed sometimes or feels bad about his circumstances. And he loves his students and misses being in the classroom. I think from all the studies that animals really do help with your emotions, so we just started talking about the possibility of getting an emotional support animal,” said Laurie Wells.
For Wells, maintaining his well-being through spirituality and reading helps a lot. “I try to make sure that I’m always reading something. Dr. Boone asked for us as the faculty and staff to read N.T. Wright’s ‘After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters’. I’ve been working on that book. I just bought a book on ‘Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth’ by a guy named Thaddeus J. Williams. I just heard of him. I’m not sure I will agree with everything he says, but the title was interesting to me. I’m kind of a big social justice person. And of course Scripture,” he said.
“The Lord has been my strength and he has provided me with lots of hope because he has led people in my life, actually through Zoom — which is crazy — that have had messages that I really needed to hear. It’s kind of in many ways helped me redevelop some of my faith and I’m very grateful. And, you know, I couldn’t have done any of this without my wife, Laurie’s support.”
In August the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending a third dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna for immunocompromised people. Wells recently received his booster shot of the Moderna vaccine. Now he is waiting to get a clear from his doctor.
“I’m hoping there will be evidence for next semester that would allow me to feel comfortable going back into the classroom. That may not happen, but maybe it will, so that will be my hope.”