American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2021      NOPBC CONFERENCE

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It's Not Just You: Growth and Resilience in Pandemic Times

by Carla Keirns

Carla Keirns From the Editor: Carla Keirns is an eloquent advocate for blind children and their families. She is a member of the Missouri affiliate of the NFB, and she serves on the board of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). She is a physician in Kansas City, Kansas. She is the mother of an eight-year-old blind son.

My family just celebrated my second pandemic birthday, our second pandemic wedding anniversary, and soon we will celebrate my son's second pandemic birthday. We have had our first anniversary of my father-in-law's death from COVID in April 2020, and we've experienced more Zoom funerals for other family members than I can bear to count.

I have started forgetting what I used to do on weekends, and I am not alone. You are not imagining it!

My patients and their families are forgetting, too. We were not made for this kind of stress, for weeks and months on end of fearing for our lives; upending our routines; going for long periods without seeing other people's faces in person; or, for those who live alone in communities facing high rates of viral transmission, going months without human touch.

Alongside the viral pandemic, we are facing waves of forgetting, of stress, of disturbed sleep, of bizarre behavior. We are exhausted, run down. We find that things we used to do take more effort than before. Those who were best at social distancing are finding our muscles have atrophied, and our physical endurance needs to be built up again.

Our bodies were made for fight-or-flight, adrenaline surges in response to being chased by a lion or tiger or bear. Oh my! Chronic stress takes a different toll on our bodies. It ages us prematurely. We know this from soldiers and medical trainees. Presidents go gray much faster when they hold the nuclear codes. Our skin becomes more frail. Our blood vessels stiffen. Chronically elevated cortisol and other stress hormones, as well as sleep deprivation, lead to insulin resistance and premature diabetes.

As your friend the doctor, I am asking you to do what so many of us have been putting off. Be gentle with yourself. Take that extra nap. But also go to the gym or take a walk. But not all at once—hospitals are starting to see people with muscle damage from overdoing it.

Go to your doctor if you're due. We are finding a lot of folks who have not had COVID-19 but have had worsening of their diabetes and high blood pressure. They've had heart attacks and missed cancer screenings while they were in isolation. My colleagues in mental health have noticed sleeplessness, stress, increased alcohol consumption, and family conflict when everyone has been stuck together in homes that were never intended to be occupied 24/7 for months on end. You don't need to leave home—the doctor will see you on Zoom, too. Social contact is critical, even if it's by phone or on Zoom or socially distanced outside.

Three months into isolation in the United States, on June 4, 2020, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon by Emily Flake showing "What happens to all the un-hugged hugs?" The cartoonist wrote, "I ran into a friend on the street. After chatting for a few minutes, we wanted to hug goodbye, but, of course, that's no longer possible. The hug we couldn't hug seemed to manifest as an almost visible thing between us and float away, unsatisfied and disconsolate. Where are they going, all these un-hugged hugs?" The accompanying images showed hugs as wisps, cloud-like, that floated into the sky like lost balloons, but giving us all hope for a time when hugs will be possible again. 

This stress is even more true for our kids. My almost eight-year-old didn't see any children his age for nearly a full year, except in pictures and on Zoom. His ability to carry on a conversation with a peer withered with the months, and it is only now recovering after a few months of in-person school and camp.

But this is not a counsel of despair. I see hope. I see hope in the ways that the community rallied together to fight this virus, from food banks to hospitals to government support. I see hope in renewed social contacts, and I see hope in creativity.

I see loving and skilled teachers who rallied to make sure our kids had access to Braille and tactile materials in the early days of the pandemic, when schools closed suddenly. The school in my community and the school in my city brought card tables and teachers to the sidewalks outside kids' homes to ensure that poor kids kept learning.

I see agencies that put up webinar series to bring instruction and community to both kids and adults. NFB Bell® Academy, APH, Perkins, Camp Abilities, Cal State Excel, and so many other organizations took their existing programs and developed online versions. They thought about how to make these programs multisensory and accessible, and they made it possible for individuals across the United States and around the world to participate in ways that none of us imagined eighteen months ago.

Parents got to see into their kids' classrooms. They didn't always love what they saw, but they learned what needs were and were not being met and how to meet some of these needs themselves. Teachers brought creativity and new skills to remote instruction - skills that will serve kids who are geographically remote or otherwise were not well served in person before. Orientation and mobility instructors developed community curricula, often meeting the needs of their students better than they did before. And parents became true partners because there was no other choice.

We cannot and should not unlearn what we learned.

We all have new skills in virtual instruction, making materials accessible, and holding service providers accountable. We also have old friends and new friends.

All pandemics end. This one will end, too. And with it we will find that we are stronger, braver, and kinder than we thought.

Stay safe, friends. Get vaccinated if you can. Wear a mask. We are so close!

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