Persevering the Pandemic: Find Faith, Hold Hope, & Embrace Charity

The text below is Danny Scalise’s address to the graduates of Alderson Broaddus University’s Graduate Programs from August 21, 2020

Thank you Dr. Barry for that wonderful introduction.

To Dr. Barry, Dr. Propst, the Board of Governors, the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, thank you for for the privilege of spending this time with you.  It is truly an honor to address the graduates of Alderson Broaddus University.

To the Class of 2020, I say to you; congratulations Battlers on the culmination of an immense educational feat. 

Graduates, please pause and take a moment and look around the auditorium at the people who are sitting here with us.  For your family and friends that have supported your endeavors, I believe it is important that we acknowledge their presence and thank them for their sacrifices and the encouragement of your educational pursuit. Please give them a round of applause. 

Here we sit, not far from where you received your education.  Phillipi, West Virginia.  It is near the site of the first land battle of the Civil War.  It is the site of the first physician assistant program.  Its also the site of Little Moe’s Bar. 

And here we are at a commencement – the end to your journey at AB.  Commencement doesn’t mean your education has reached its pinnacle.  Your learning doesn’t stop here in this auditorium.  The diploma you are about to receive is a key to your future.  A future filled with greatness.

The Alderson Broaddus motto, from the darkness into the light is a fitting analogy of what you have achieved. You came in to AB in the darkness and your graduation memorializes the time which brought you to the light. 

I realize that you have finished your time at AB with an absence of traditional experience.  I had to explain something similar with my nephew as he graduated from George Washington High School in Charleston earlier this year.  He was upset that he didn’t receive the educational crescendo he had envisioned and planned for.  As an 18 year old, this was one of his biggest accomplishments.  I know he will have many more achievements and this will be a memorable footnote in his life.  However, like my nephew, you should understand the world didn’t stop turning for the pandemic.  Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson said it best when he said “Everyone has a plan, til they get punched in the mouth”.  SARS-CoV2, COVID-19, the coronavirus, the pandemic, or whatever you call it, it is the world’s punch in the mouth.

Though you have spent the last bit of your life on a bucolic hill in Barbour County,  modern media has made its way to campus.  I’m certain that you are aware of the other plague that our American society is dealing with.  Racism.  

In our country, we’ve seen young people of color unnecessarily lose their lives and families suffer through these losses. We’ve seen movements of unity and racial divide.   We’ve seen the consequences of turning a blind eye to basic civil rights, and it angers me. It angers me to hear of and witness the pain caused by racism. It also angers me to hear people using language that shows hatred and bigotry.   

I am fully aware of the privilege that my skin color provides me.  I hope that you too are aware of the nuances of 20th century racism that has crept into the 21st century.   As educators you must teach the next generation and as health care providers you must heal the sick.  Together, we must work together to eradicate from this planet, racism.

Many people like to say things about being colorblind or exclaiming that they are the opposite of racist.  First, I must tell you the opposite of bigotry is  not a vision deficiency such as colorblindness.  It is love.  The late Thomas Merton, a best selling author, Catholic mystic, and Trappist monk wrote a great deal on race and cultural issues of the 1960s.  One day while walking down the street in Louisville, KY he was at the intersection of 4th and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) when he was “suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”   The first and only step to eliminating the plague of racism is love.

As we look to address the issues of our time, we will have successes and we will have failures.  Over the next few decades of your life, you will fail.  I did. Dr. Barry did.  Your professors did.  Inventors, Scientist, Presidents (some more than others), Religious Leaders, CEOs, they have all failed.  When you fail, do not be discouraged at your failure.  Do not accept your failure, but do not forget it.  Learn from it and have faith in the education you received not only from Alderson Broaddus, but also from your mentors, your parents and grand parents.  I was more educated than my grandmother before I was old enough to get a learner’s permit, yet I’m aware of how brilliant she was.  She gave me so much more than I ever knew when she was on this earth.  Treasure that now and don’t forget the education you received and will continue to receive from your elders and from your mentors. This foundation will help you weather the storms of your failures and make you all the better for it.

Not to sound too evangelical, but I truly believe in a level of divine intervention in each of our lives. Perseus, one of the greatest Greek heroes, beheaded the gorgon Medusa and defeated the great sea monster, but did it with divine help from Zeus.  Though that story is a myth, we all come across a gorgon in our life.  More often than not, you’ll need help from the divine in order to succeed.  I find comfort in my Catholic faith.  I hope that you too have a religious faith and that God brings you comfort at times of toil or struggle.

I surmise that most, if not all of you are American citizens and are going to work in the United States.  You will get an opportunity to take part in your government.  It is your right, your responsibility, and your duty to be a part.  As I mentioned earlier, you should continue your education.  One very important subject is civics.  Be an informed voter and go to the polls, or mail in your ballot. As the saying goes, “be the change you want to see in the world.” The first step to that change is action. You should also know, you are constitutionally protected when you ask for help or redress from your government.  Talk to your elected representatives.  It is the best way to ensure the continuation of our Republic.  If you are going to become a citizen, this advice applies to you as well.  

“In times of deep discouragement you should never make a change, but stand firm in the resolutions and decisions that guided you that day before the discouragement.” That is a quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, was reminding us to stick to our guns in times of trouble. Anytime you aren’t certain, go back to your training, your fundamentals, and most important, always stick to your values.

Earlier, I mentioned our nation’s punch in the mouth. COVID-19 is a pandemic. As of last night, it has killed more than 174,000 Americans. While I do not want you to forget or minimize it, I would advise you: don’t accept it, beat it. Accepting defeat against this foe is the guaranteed way to lose the battle. Being that you are all Battlers, I know you don’t like to lose. The way to beat it is to be an advocate for the people you serve. Follow science and do things like wear a mask and keep social distance.

When I finished my first graduate degree, the economy was booming and I had job prospects.  Oddly enough, a few years later the economy fell and I found myself unemployed.  You are entering an economy that has seen record falls.  Fear not, this pandemic will not last forever.  The good news for you, public servants like you are in great demand and the Spanish Flu of 1918 was a predecessor to the roaring 20s, so perhaps we are about to see the Roaring 20’s part 2.

Over the last couple years, you have received the small school experience.  That means your world class professors have been able to spend more time with you.  AB has prepared you for professional life.  The AB vision statement has a section in it that says the school wants to prepare graduates for success and service to humanity.  I have no doubt you will all be successful at your craft.  You are prepared or you would not be here today.  But the second part of that statement is what is key.  You must make yourself servants to humanity for you to fulfill the vision AB has for you.

There have been recent commercials on television that show a physician talking to a patient.  As he walks in the patient’s room he quips that he is now back from suspension and the nurse says he is just OK as a surgeon.  It says something about just ok is not ok.  Each of you received a coveted position in a competitive environment just getting into the program from which you graduate today.   Alderson Broaddus University has not accepted you then trained you to be just OK.  Your professors have not spent the last years of their life teaching you to be an OK part of our society.  I implore you, be renowned as a leader in healthcare and professional higher education.  You have the tools and the talent to be great.   

Every day there is too much on the news about how terrible this politician is or how greedy this businessman is.  I’m not saying they aren’t, but you should know, there is an immense amount of good done in this world.  There are true super heroes and they give me reason to hope.  They don’t wear a cape or a cowl.  They don’t have a hidden identity.  But you should believe in these people.  Take the time to find people to follow, read, study, and imitate.  Of my personal heroes, I include Muhammad Ali, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thomas Jefferson, Ghandi, and Jesus.

Winston Churchill, who many people consider a hero, is often quoted as saying “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” Churchill actually never said that.  He was the opposite.   Right now, I assume each of you has a passion for your craft. That’s usually what happens when you graduate.  You’re ready to go to work.  You’re full of fire in your belly.  Keep that fire going.  Be an idealist. Remember the feeling of passion you have  today as you continue in your career.  It will make you better at your job.  It will make you a better part of our society.  

As your degree is confirmed, you will be more educated than 87% of people in the united states.  And, considering the wealth of much of this world, you will also be at the top of the global wealth scale. I realize it doesn’t seem like it, but most of the world doesn’t have the living standards we have in this country.  When we hear people say make America great again, I think to myself America still is great, but we have the capacity to do so much more.  

As a child, I remember watching a movie set in medieval times.  One of the scenes showed beggars, something I hadn’t seen in my limited life experience at that time.  They had their hands held out and were on their knees.  They were dirty and had the look of shame on their face.  I had to ask my mother what the beggar was saying.  He said “alms for the poor”.  I did not know what that meant.  Now, in 2020, in the United States, we don’t see beggars like I saw in that film.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of need in this state, in this country, or on the planet. 

Please remember what I mentioned earlier, someone helped you to get to this place in your life.  I doubt they asked you for much, if anything in return.  What I’m trying to get at, is the cliche “pay it forward”.  Give back to your university, to non-profits, to local food banks.  Do whatever you can.  Even if it isn’t much, you are making a difference.  Ask yourself this question, if you are giving $5 to the American Cancer Society, what if your fifth dollar funded the research of the person who cured cancer.  Someone made a donation to AB in order for you to be here.

Each of you have received training that it considered a public service, whether healthcare or education, you are doing a service.  Whether you work for government, a non-profit, or the private sector, you are public servants  and you have a duty by virtue of your career.  You have a duty to society.  You have a duty to help people.  Make certain your values are front and center and never forget that duty.

Class of 2020, I pray for your health.  I pray you will have a long, robust career.  It is my great wish that you stay right here in West Virignia to care for the health and well being of our citizens and to educate our young.    If you choose to live elsewhere, to you I give  the same charge, to care for and educate your community.  You have a duty, and we are counting on you.

COVID-19 and Religion

I am troubled by the recent precipitous increase in the cases of COVID-19, some of which are happening in churches. Most experts know that we will see what is known as a second wave. As a Catholic, I understand the desire to return to the Sunday morning worship services. Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass, though our Bishop has wisely lifted that obligation during the pandemic. I am truly worried about the spread of COVID-19 that is happening in religious institutions.

The average age of my Church is higher than I prefer to see. Too many of the members of my parish and other religious communities are in the older age group that has a higher death rate from this disease. I worry for their safety and the safety of their families. The rush to return to regular worship services could make our churches part of the second wave.

I am also aware of how many children are being raised by grandparents. A grandparent raising a child that is unnecessarily infected and placed in an ICU or even worse passes away, could increase the amount of children in an already over taxed foster care system. If this even happens once, it is too many times.

This is a trying time for all of us. Though I do not feel attending Mass via technology such as Zoom or YouTube is the same as worshiping together, it is 100% safer and the only way to guarantee no transmission of disease. While Catholics miss the opportunity to take part in the Eucharist, it gives us the opportunity to live long enough to worship together in the future. This pandemic will not last forever.

During Mass we do so many things that are easy ways to spread disease. We hold hands, we hug, we sing, during the Eucharist we eat food handed to us or fed to us and drink after one another, and at my parish, you may occasionally hear an amen shouted after a homily. Though most religious leaders, including Catholic Bishops, have told their congregations not to do these things, old habits are hard to break, especially when they make you feel better.

I believe Jesus’ taught healing. Eliminating all unnecessary gatherings will help our society with healing by not letting the disease use the Catholic Church as a vessel for transmission. For the faithful, please think about your attendance and whether you can worship at home.

Love

Our country has come to a crossroads. I do not believe that we may any longer sit and permit the racial injustices that have become apparent. I’m unaware of how long things have been this way. Perhaps it’s just modern technology removing the scales from my eyes. I’ve always known there was racism and bigotry in this country, but it was hidden from my view. For my sin of being an ignorant bystander, I apologize.

The two paths of this crossroads are the well worn status quo or the road less traveled. The status quo will continue the oppression and senseless violence. However, the road not yet taken can fulfill the promise of the American Dream. It can confirm that all are created equal and ensure that all can have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that all can be judged by the quality of their character and for nothing else.

There are many calls for government intervention. Action. Things to be done. First, I must say that the consequences of killing a man should be delivered swiftly and justly. That is the responsibility of the legal system. Any lack of duty in the legal system should also be dealt with swiftly. However, for the rest of us, we too have responsibilities.

Ghandi taught us to be the change we want in the world. I don’t believe we can legislate morality. Putting a law on the books that says a man cannot be racist is foolish. One cannot tell another how to think. However, we can each look inside ourselves and dig deep to ask what we believe. Is this country giving each man his due? When people are saying “all lives matter”, do they truly mean that black lives matter?

I go to my faith in this type of introspection. “…when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The Apostle Paul wrote this in his first letter to the church of Corinth many years ago, but they words still ring true. Nothing can replace these three, especially the greatest. Our best hope for this country to heal, to progress, and to be great again is for love to be our default mode.

Thomas Merton, a best selling author and monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani for many years once described his epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, KY. He said that he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all these people. What would our world look like if everyone suddenly had that same epiphany? What if when we saw people without regard to their race, religion, or sexual preference; we just loved them like Thomas Merton did that day in Louisville? What if we followed the command that Jesus Christ gave us to love?

Street sign in Louisville, KY marking Merton’s revelation.

I don’t know if Whitman was talking about love, but love is the road less traveled these days. I think we can take that road and be the better off because of it.

Public Health Leadership

The recent pandemic of COVID-19, coupled with social media and 24 hour news coverage, has caused a lot of information to spread, some good and some bad.  People in positions of leadership have to decide what to with the information they are given.  They need to learn how to distill, how to determine good from bad, and they must set priorities.  In a situation like this those priorities can mean a debate between the health of a nation and the health of the nation’s economy.  

I have rarely been as proud of my fellow Mountaineers as I have been during the COVID-19 Pandemic.  The Appalachian DNA has given us a sense of purpose.  While we probably have one of the most vulnerable populations, West Virginia is on track to be one of the lowest in the nation, if not the lowest, in COVID-19 infections and deaths from the virus.  While this surge has hit us, we don’t seem as overwhelmed by it as other states. Yes, some of that is due to our solitary and rural nature, but our leadership has stepped up and the people are following.  We have stayed at home, washed our hands, and listened.  Our hospitals were having a difficult time staying open, yet state leaders and institutions have stepped up to keep them open and taking care of West Virginians.

At the federal level, the President mistook himself for a king and appointed himself as the sole decision maker.  His worry seems to be of the economy and reelection, not the health of the nation.  HIs desire for breakneck speed to reopen this country is foolish and selfish.  The recent backlash has caused the President to walk back his authoritarianism a little.  I hope he hears the cries of the people that do not want us to prioritize the health of the economy over the health of the people.

I hope everyone will work together to make certain we all can vote in November, by staying at home until the professionals tell us it is ok to resume activities.  As of right now, millions of people who work in healthcare are risking their life and the life of their families by working on the front lines.  Like David in the Old Testament, they go without the necessary armor and work with what they have.  They use worn out N95 masks like the smooth stones and are slaying the disease like a giant philistine. 

COVID-19 Projections

The Intitute for Health Informatics and Evaluation is an independent global health research group, housed at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. I was recently turned on to a website they’ve created that has some information about the healthcare system’s needs in response to the COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic we’re all experiencing. This summary is of data found at that website here: http://covid19.healthdata.org. The site begins with data from the United States, but I will be discussing our local needs. If you click the drop down menu in the green bar, you can select by state.

Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
University of Washington

State-Mandated Social Distancing

First, the information about state-mandated social distancing. It lists the dates of Governor Jim Justice‘s decisions to stay at home, close educational facilities, close non-essential services, and to severly limit travel. Users can also compare the dates by other states to see how soon each Governor responded to the issue.

Hospital Resource Use

The next section is important. It shows numbers from the model of hospital resource use. The IHME model gives a countdown to when peak resource use will be in the state. In West Virginia, they predict it to be one month away on May 1, 2020. The chart further details three things 1. Bed Shortage 2. ICU Bed Shortage and 3. Invavsive Ventilators Needed.

According to the model, West Virginia’s peak will be in one month. The state will need 1,504 beds and has 3,032 beds available showing no hospital bed shortage. It shows a predicted need of 228 ICU beds with 196 available or a shortage of 32 ICU beds. ICU beds available is the total number of ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients minus the average historical ICU bed use. Finally, 183 invasive ventilators could be needed. There is also a graph that allows the user to move up and down to see the projections as well as their best and worst case scenario. West Virginia as a state seems to be faring better than places like New York, who are overwhelmed and will see the peak sooner.

Deaths Per Day

The next section shows deaths per day. Using the model, it is projected that West Virignia has 31 days until peak count of daily deaths. Users can move left and right to see the models prediction and best/worst case scenario.

Total Deaths

Finally, the last graph on the site projects that West Virginia will have a projected 496 deaths from COVID-19, with best and worst case scenario from the model.

Thank you to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation for providing valuable data. I’ve been following this website since it was brought to my attention. It seems to be updated regularly to reflect the current situation. If you don’t live in West Virginia, look at how your state is predicted to be and how your policy makers are reacting.

Behind the front lines are health services researchers, biostatiticians, and epidemiologists that use models and data to help us predict many different health issues. In a pandemic, those data professionals take information we have and use it to help determine where resources need to go and help policy makers make the their decisions based on science. There is never enough research on health issues, especially in West Virginia.