AUP Community Blog

In the Covid ICU, My AUP Classes Came Back to Me

Susan Perron '05

By Susan Perron '05

After AUP, there was a lot I didn't anticipate. I didn't anticipate becoming a nurse. I didn't anticipate moving to Nashville. And, as a medical ICU nurse at Vanderbilt Medical Center who has spent the past year treating Covid-19 patients, I didn’t anticipate finding myself in an online writing group. Yet there I was on a Zoom call with a group of medical professionals from across the US awaiting our weekly writing prompt. I was quickly flooded with memories of my 18-year-old self in EN110 with Professor Roy Rosenstein; a class I ended up repeating.

I was not a poster child for AUP’s Department of Comparative Literature. On exam days, I watched as my peers waited eagerly, pen in hand, for a thematic writing prompt, before they somehow managed to artfully compose their tour de force with ease. I would sit there drawing a blank. Perhaps it was because I didn't really know how to express myself on paper. Often at war with myself, I would repeatedly write down a sentence only to cross it out soon after. Perhaps I didn't understand the intricate details hidden behind the question, as I lacked the expertise of life experience. It could well have been because I lacked the confidence that I had anything valuable or worthy to say.

The thought of extemporaneous writing, to this day, still gives me palpations. However, the pandemic left many medical professionals, including me, desperately seeking an outlet to process the events and trauma of the past 20 months. As I was working through these feelings the creation of my piece, Butterfly Man, evolved. To my surprise it was submitted to and gained some notoriety on NPR and Vanderbilt, and it is now being published. It was through writing again that I came to realize just how profound and valuable the lessons taught at AUP were to me, and the ways in which they had played a part in my creative expression.

As I began writing about my time spent in the Covid-ICU, I had flashbacks of discussions in Professor Rosenstein’s class, regarding Ferris, Carson McCullers protagonist from The Sojourner. Like Ferris, my life seemed to be moving in every direction, but, at the same time, going nowhere. I had always wondered if Professor Rosenstein meant to use Ferris as a cautionary tale, perhaps as a warning that we too may be doomed to watch life go by, largely unsatisfied. As I continued to work day in and day out, taking care of some of the sickest patients, I felt like I was working in a vacuum where my life was being dominated by my career. Was I becoming like Ferris? That might be the impression you’d get if you looked in my car and saw the pile of fast-food wrappers on the floor or the backseat scattered with both clean and dirty scrubs. In one of my online group sessions, I wrote about that too. Even if I wasn’t watching my life pass me by in the Covid-ICU, I was certainly contemplating my mortality.

What I didn’t understand as a student, I’ve come to understand as a nurse: the irony of how closely art mimics life across time and space. Seeing so many of my patients die, it’s difficult not to reflect on my own death; not necessary how, but when. Will I be next? In the midst of fighting this silent war, the veil between the patient and the healthcare provider becomes very thin. At any given point we run the risk of becoming patients ourselves, lying in a hospital bed, ventilated and cannulated for ECMO. How many times have I admitted Covid-positive patients who are ambulatory, alert and orientated, talking about their families and hopes for the future, who are then dead in less than a week’s time? Along with my fellow coworkers, I was ready to step-up, despite the risks – even to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. Do we dare contemplate our future in such conditions? These ideas of comradery, sacrifice and death resonated deeply in my writing. They are themes from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls – another reading from my AUP days. Except there was no bell tolling for our patients. Instead, we were just left to carry their ghosts in silence.

But, alongside those ghosts, I’ve carried the lessons of AUP with me into the ICU – lessons that extend far past the doors of the Bosquet Building, which was the University’s main building back in my time. I'm just now fully making sense of them. I realize that learning is a lifelong adventure and that there is still so much in comparative literature that I have yet to discover. Inspired by Professor Rosenstein's piece, With Dante in Hell on 9/11, I have recently embarked on reading Dante's Divine Comedy, beginning with the Inferno. I feel it very fitting for the times; we start in Hell and, hopefully, it's just up from there.