Making It Work

By Andy Faught Kevin Burke

From remote worship to online meditation, and testing to teaching, these six alumni have mobilized in the fight against COVID-19

Tiny scabs pepper the bridge of Frances Shirley ’91’s nose—telltale marks of the N95 mask that helps armor her against COVID-19. Since April, the registered nurse at Sonoma Valley Hospital in Sonoma has been on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus, which had claimed more than 230,000 American lives through the end of October.

Single and childless, she rises to the challenge at hand, undaunted. “I don’t need to worry about exposing anybody at home,” says Shirley, who majored in art history at Oxy and decided to become a nurse after donating blood, and then platelets for chemotherapy patients, in her 20s. “I’m the perfect person to test folks. I’m here for the long haul.”

In addition to the testing she does at the hospital, she’s a volunteer for the neighboring Napa County Health Department, which has tested more than 25,000 people, among the most comprehensive responses in California. At the hospital, nervous people arrive at the hospital’s ambulance bay—site of the makeshift testing station. Receiving a nasopharyngeal swab with a 6-inch Q-tip isn’t always greeted with enthusiasm.

“I’ve never said so many times, ‘You can’t tell, but I’m smiling at you right now,’” says Shirley, a medical surgical nurse who does not work with critically ill COVID-19 patients. “No matter how scared they are, I’m able to talk them through it. I’ve done so many thumbs up at people.”

Shirley is one of a number of Occidental alumni who have responded to a pandemic that has strained them in myriad ways—physically, mentally, spiritually, and intellectually. But the liberal arts framework, and their Oxy experiences in particular, have given them the tools to confront a once-in-a-lifetime crucible.

“There’s a big emphasis in nursing on critical thinking,” Shirley says. “We have to have a really good reason to do something, and it needs to be evidence-based. And then we reevaluate. For a lot of people in nursing school, they hadn’t thought in those terms. But it’s a completely familiar idea to me.”

A mile north of Occidental, Rev. Roberto Corral ’76 imparts guidance to his 3,000-member congregation at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Eagle Rock. Ninety percent of his parishioners are Filipino, and many of them are so-called “essential workers” employed in health care professions.

By Governor Gavin Newsom’s order, St. Dominic, like houses of worship throughout California, halted in-person Mass in March. Services were streamed on Facebook and YouTube, a practice that continues today. Indoor ser­vices were allowed again briefly in June—to no more than 100 mask-wearing, socially distanced congregants.

But in July, the state again banned indoor services amid a spike in coronavirus infections. Corral, a priest for 32 years, has since been saying Mass—as well as conducting baptisms, weddings and funerals—in the parish parking lot. He joined St. Dominic in March 2019, after having served pastoral duties in the Bay Area.

“It’s been a learning curve, and it’s forced us to be a bit more creative about reaching out to people,” he says. “We had wanted to reach more of our congregation through the Internet, but we just hadn’t gotten around to it. This really forced us to get our act together.”

COVID-19, Corral says, is “the ever-present reality.” In his homilies, he preaches patience, and he urges congregants to follow state guidelines. “There are some religious organizations that are defying those orders, but we’ve been given common-sense instructions by the archdiocese,” he says. “My message is one of faith in God, that somehow we’ll get through this, and that these kinds of things happen now and then.”

Even among the faithful, Corral, a mathematics major at Oxy, says there are those who struggle to believe in a God that would allow COVID-19 to cause such destruction to life and livelihoods. Corral admits his own struggles to understand “why things aren’t working out.” Now in his mid-60s, he relies on a faith hewn by time and experience.

“God does not make evil but allows things like this to challenge us, to help us to be more faith-filled and trusting in Him in spite of the difficult circumstances,” Corral says. “If there’s a natural disaster, like an earthquake or something beyond our human control, it’s part of being alive in an imperfect world. We’re not going to experience perfection until the afterlife.”

When the United States documented its first COVID-19 infection in January, few knew what lay ahead. Amid early mixed messages about the efficacy of face masks, California in June mandated wearing face coverings in public spaces.

Prior to that, many residents wore them, but masks weren’t always readily available. Jeremy Castro ’99 helped to offset the shortage. He’s the founder and “chief catalyst” of Brand Marinade, a San Leandro-based T-shirt company whose clients include local and corporate businesses, and celebrities.

When Governor Newsom ordered Californians to shelter in place on March 19, Castro was talking on the phone to the mother of his girlfriend, Danielle Siegler ’11. “She said, ‘Castro, you need to start making masks. You have all of these T-shirts. You can make masks with them,’ ” he recalls. “I then had a corporate client that also called that day who said, ‘Jeremy, we need 100,000 masks to give to our employees.’ ”

The company went on to make 60,000 masks of various colors—“Tmasks,” Castro calls them—from April 1 until the first week of May. He procured 190,000 additional surgical masks from his suppliers in China. He sold more than half of his creations and distributed the rest to local hospitals, food banks, and homeless shelters.

He distributed the masks with a longtime client, Oakland native and pro football player Marshawn Lynch. The pair handed out their wares throughout the Bay Area while riding electric tricycles.

“It was something that I had the ability to do, and it needed to be done,” says Castro, who earned his degree in cognitive science. “This is a time when, if you’re in a position to help, then you have a duty to do it.”

That mindset is what brought Dr. Kimberly Shriner ’80 back to her alma mater. The College enlisted Shriner, an infectious disease expert at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, in May as an expert consultant. It will be with Shriner’s input that the Occidental administration will decide when to reopen campus to in-person classes. (A decision is expected about plans for next semester in December.)

As fall semester approached, “We had to make some really tough decisions,” Shriner says. “It just became very clear that the density of disease in L.A. County was getting worse and worse, and our inability to do really rapid, frequent testing on campus was going to be problematic. The safety of the students and the safety of the staff was really paramount.”

Shriner’s involvement isn’t limited to her advisory capacity. She’s also co-teaching a class titled The Biology and Epidemiology of COVID-19 with Roberta Pollock, professor of biology. In real time, students are exploring the biology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of COVID-19, and discussing the human immune response and factors affecting the disease’s outcome. Shriner leveraged her connections in the medical field to assemble an impressive group of guest speakers, including primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall and Dr. Ying-Ying Goh, Pasadena’s director of public health and health officer.

“It’s a historic moment,” Pollock says. “As an immunologist, being able to work with someone of Dr. Shriner’s caliber and have real-world, real-people applications for what I’ve studied my entire life is incredible.”

A marine science major at Oxy, Shriner looks back fondly on her days as a student researcher on the Vantuna: “It really honed my skills as a scientist; we did a lot of electrophoresis and calorimetry, and things like that.” She joined the teaching faculty of Huntington Hospital in 1992 and founded the Phil Simon AIDS Clinic four years later.

Since 2002, she has made regular trips to Tanzania, where she and Huntington colleagues provide basic health care, medication, HIV and anti-retroviral education in the impoverished African nation. Her interest in infectious diseases bloomed when she was attending medical school at Case Western Reserve University, at the same time HIV emerged as a global crisis. These days she’s treating COVID-19 patients, in whom she has witnessed profound suffering.

“They’re drowning in their own secretions,” Shriner says. “Their lungs become these giant, leathery, inefficient machines for breathing. Therapies are few and far between, so it’s a struggle.”

While President Donald J. Trump was espousing the potential curative powers of sunlight in treating COVID-19 last spring—an idea that was met with more than a little skepticism—San Francisco-based scientist William Grant ’63 was busy studying the role that Vitamin D might play in reducing COVID-19 infections and death. Vitamin D, acquired by diet or supplements and activated by sunlight, has long been known to boost the immune system.

Grant is director of the Sunlight, Nutrition and Health Research Center, an organization devoted to research, education, and advocacy relating to the prevention of chronic disease through changes in diet and lifestyle. In his writings, he has called out the health care industry for failing to recognize the potential of Vitamin D.

“We have a disease treatment health system,” Grant says. “All participants, from physicians to hospitals to Big Pharma, derive income and profit from treating—not preventing—disease. Since Vitamin D is inexpensive and effective at reducing the risk of many types of disease, our medical system tries to discredit it at every opportunity.”

Grant, who majored in physics at Oxy and earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley, made national headlines in 1997, when he reported that diet plays an important role in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. He has published more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles on the role of Vitamin D in helping to reduce the risk of 100 types of disease and has been studying its merits since 1999.

His advocacy builds on recent findings presented by Italian researchers at a meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. Their analysis showed that people who died of COVID-19 in Italian hospitals often had lower Vitamin D levels than those who survived the disease.

“Oxy gave me a good background in the liberal arts and humanities, and it helped me decide not to go into a profession just to make money, but also to help society,” says Grant. He worked as an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia prior to his Vitamin D research.

A self-described “armchair health researcher,” Grant made a Zoom presentation to several thousand physicians in India—at that time home to the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world—on the treatment of COVID-19 with Vitamin D in late August. “Doing this occasionally leads to making connections that others have not thought of.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, circulation of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a quarterly compendium of Buddhist teachings and practices, has surged 120 percent to about 25,000, as subscribers seek spiritual intervention in the absence of a vaccine.

“So many of us are self-isolating, and people are looking for ways to reduce stress and anxiety,” says associate publisher Sam Mowe ’07, whose role at the magazine is to increase subscriptions and donors, and to schedule speakers for Tricycle-sponsored online courses. In May, more than 30,000 people took part in a Tricycle-sponsored guided meditation by the nun and teacher Pema Chodron. (Other meditations have been led by mindfulness luminaries such as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Tara Branch.)

“People are coming for a deeper steadiness, for meaning and purpose and ways to make sense of everything that feels so uncertain now,” Mowe says from his home in Portland, Ore. “Meditation is credited with reducing negative emotions, building stress management skills, and easing high blood pressure.” While meditation and mindfulness apps have netted millions of new users in the United States since the outbreak, Tricycle, he says, has been teaching meditation techniques to the uninitiated: “My hope is we go a bit deeper than the meditation apps.”

Between tending to the needs of his daughters (Ruth, born on April 28, and Lila, who turned 3 in September) with his wife, Elizabeth, Mowe tries to fit in daily personal meditations lasting up to 30 minutes. He majored in religious studies at Oxy, studying his junior year in Bodh Gaya, India, a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists. Mowe went on to complete a Fulbright research project in Lumbini, Nepal, Buddha’s birthplace.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism address suffering and finding a path that leads to the end of suffering. Mowe’s faith was emboldened by the teachings of Dale Wright, the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor in Religion and Religious Studies Emeritus. “It’s hard to imagine my life now without that introduction to Buddhism at Oxy,” says Mowe, who joined the Tricycle staff in April 2018 after nearly four years as a communications manager and editor with the Garrison Institute in Garrison, N.Y. “It’s informed my personal and professional life.”

Back in Sonoma, September temperatures topped 100 degrees and wildfire smoke fouled the air as Frances Shirley administered tests on the blacktop. When she’s home, she sleeps or talks to friends on Zoom. “I haven’t been within six feet of a loved one since this all started,” she says. (Dating back to her grandmother, the late Mercedes Shirley ’32, Frances comes from a large Oxy family, including her parents, Christine Grage ’66 and Gary Shirley ’65; brothers Geoffrey ’88 and Joseph ’90; and her aunt and uncle, Mary Shirley ’66 and Frans Kok ’67.)

“We are still looking for good things to happen in the future,” she adds. “Eventually, we’ll get a vaccine and we can convert our testing site to a vaccination drive-through, hopefully.” And then, at last, Shirley can plan a long-overdue family reunion.

Faught wrote “Class Disrupted” in the Spring issue.