Health Humanities and COVID-19, an interview with Bryan Rusch

By: Arthi Kozhumam

My life requires a lot of accommodations and advocacy and getting help, that’s just the nature of disability. In a situation like this, where I feel familiar, it’s my turn to advocate for and accommodate others. It’s about having people with you and in spirit that I think is one of the biggest things and having that sense of community.

– Bryan Rusch

In this time of uncertainty, stress, and disruption, the health humanities may be more important than ever in providing a sense of solace, relief, or distraction. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I set out to interview a few students involved in either the Health Humanities Lab or Duke Disability Alliance, in order to understand how COVID-19 may have affected their plans and how the transition from in-person to online work has been. I first spoke to Bryan Rusch, a senior undergraduate at Duke, over Zoom.

How have you been doing during this time?

Bryan was approved to stay on campus for the remainder of the year. He is a senior and had been trying to figure out how to finish his thesis and everything coming down the pipeline. He’s been doing “a lot of talking and reconnecting with people, doing FaceTime and chats –, making sure other people are safe physically and mentally, that was big in that transition period.” He also has been reading books, spring cleaning, playing video games once in a while, “finding texture in life, small little things that you can grab onto as things slowly become the same and repetitive.” He says, “I love being outside, so it’s a positive whenever it’s sunny. I’m honestly not worried at all here, it’s a super empty campus, and everybody can have their own corner.”

In terms of projects, he does Arabic calligraphy, so he’s gotten more time to do that for fun, as well as focus more on research projects. He’s relieved to have something to look forward to in the fall as he will be pursuing a PhD in Art History at Duke focusing on urban planning and infrastructure in the Middle East. He has been working with the Art History department on understanding current digital mapping techniques and visualizing cities. He’s been working on making and moderating presentations and “has had extra time and mobility to step up to the plate and help out” in that capacity. He also conducts Arabic archival research and has found extra time now to go through with his professor to find manuscripts and “time to sit down and think through everything.”

How have your classes and other activities with student groups changed since switching to online communication? What has been hard and easy about this transition?

Bryan says, “classes are kind of weird, a lot more presentation or product-based. I am studying mechanical engineering and Arabic as a second major, and for engineering, me and my team are designing a head clap to stabilize heads for neurosurgery.” Instead of the prototypes they were supposed to make, his project has shifted to a 100-page conceptual paper, concurrently with his Arabic thesis that he was working on. He is happy that he had all of his materials checked out from the library, but referenced that he knows many others who were in a worse situation. He also discussed the “general oddities of online classes,” with professors using different platforms, teaching styles, and methods of shifting course material to online work. He feels that with “two 100-page papers, thesis and engineering, and two 10-20 page papers, it’s just a lot to drop on people for them to do.”

In terms of social aspects and student groups, he feels that the organizational side of student groups had taken a backseat, but social aspects remain with students still talking over group texts and sending videos. He feels that it’s a community he feels a part of which is always good. He has been active with Duke Disability Alliance (DDA) and the Health Humanities Lab (HHL) and feels that HHL has seemed good with organizing and shifting the format of programming and events.

He says, “I’m in a wheelchair, I have a very distinct physical disability, [a] neuromuscular disease known as SMA. Within having a disability, there’s all the existential crises everyone is having about this. A lot of different frameworks are coming from the perspective of disability. The idea of closure and agency all of a sudden being taken away – for us that’s just our life, not necessarily being present, things not within our hands.”

He feels that the ideas of infirmity and mortality, and everybody having to deal with this, they’re not new ideas but are just being brought to the surface for people at large to deal with. COVID-19 is creating issues both physically and psychologically, and there is also the “backside of it too, the triaging that is being discussed, in very blunt terms, of which body is worth being kept alive…what has become manageable in day to day life suddenly is no longer manageable, and the risk level is literally mortality.” He discusses also the positive implications that may come out of this, both for the disabled community and world at large, in terms of stigma from working from home and changing the relationships between body and health. However, he mentions a significant caveat, in that there needs to be survival of the population first in order for there to be movement afterwards. He hopes that “once this all happens, those things can actually come into fruition, and the world doesn’t forget this moment.”

“Nobody’s coming out on top in this situation, but it’s about being kind to others and making it through together, trying to build that community and giving everyone a sense that they have people in their corner during this time. My life requires a lot of accommodations and advocacy and getting help, that’s just the nature of disability. In a situation like this, where I feel familiar, it’s my turn to advocate for and accommodate others. It’s about having people with you and in spirit that I think is one of the biggest things and having that sense of community. It’s not the productive body, but [being] human and keeping that humanity.”

How has the Health Humanities Lab impacted your experience at Duke and how are Health Humanities / Disability issues affected by COVID-19 from your perspective?

 Bryan’s involvement with the HHL started the end of his junior year, when he attended a Disability in the Disciplines conference, and it was “there that [he] realized that this is a valid perspective for people to listen to.” HHL and their programming really helped him put himself forward and changed how he talks about his disability, as well as having that sense of community and group of people.

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