During an Ongoing Pandemic, Four Friends Find Joy through Community

By Blake Weaver

For four UNC students, their apartment looks relatively similar to what one might expect. A fridge full of Natural Light beer and leftover pizza; textbooks and medical journals on the living room table; and a box of CDC-approved N95 masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer by the door.

Wyatt Cox, Andrew Fregenal, Nick Cooper and Matt Black are roommates and they all are self-proclaimed “clean freaks.” However, they haven’t always been so focused on germs nor do they want to be. Cox, Fregenal and Cooper are paramedics and Black works at an assisted living facility just south of Chapel Hill. For them, contracting COIVD-19 could mean the end of their work and potentially the end of someone’s life.

“I don’t mean to always sound so serious when I talk about the coronavirus,” Cox said. “I helped transport someone to a different facility and she looked at me and said ‘If I get it, I will die.’ We can’t help but take it seriously.”

Each of them starts each day the same. They get out of bed and start their personal coffee maker. They each have their own so they can avoid contamination if one of them is exposed to the virus. They check their temperature while they wait for the cherished “bean juice,” as they call it, to brew.

While they wait for their coffee to cool, they check their bags. They count their masks and gloves to make sure they have extras before sitting down at their desks to attend their classes for the day.

The Origin of Friendship 

Since they were young, all four have had aspirations to enter the medical field. They all met in their introductory Biology course and bonded over their annoying professor and hefty workload. They would sit in each other’s dorm rooms, order a couple of pizzas, and study for an exam that week before putting down their books and picking up their Xbox controllers.

“I’ve heard so often that the medical field is one of the loneliest. That’s always intimidating to students just starting to learn and prepare for it,” Fregenal said. “Having that circle helped to get through the early years of a cutthroat major and it’ll keep helping the further we get into the career.”

A Day on the Job

After the course, the four grew closer and decided to live together in their sophomore year. Cox, Fregenal and Cooper all got jobs at the same ambulance company. They rarely work the same shifts given their varied class schedules, but they all say seeing a familiar face, even for a passing minute, makes working such a hard job much more bearable.

“Because of where we work, it’s never truly the ‘he’s dead, Jim,’ intense calls, more of just transport. It’s still hard though. The precautions and the stress of potential exposure, feeling like you’re covered in disease,” Cooper said. “It’s nice walking in and fist-bumping one of your boys. They’re coming out of the thick of it, so I know I can too.”

When they’re working in the back of the ambulance, their job becomes just wires and needles, blood-pressure cuffs and temperature checks. Sitting in the break room, playing cards, even with masks and gloves on, gives them just a bit of human relief.

Black sometimes wishes he had the same kind of experience working the same job as his roommates, but he’s glad he can still come home at the end of a shift and talk about his work with them, and they’ll actually understand.

“Sometimes I feel like my area in the healthcare field is looked over. I want to be a physician’s assistant and work right alongside these guys, doing the same things, but this is how I want to cut my teeth, helping the people I support,” Black said. “They’re struggling too, and it’s really hard seeing case after case with them. They’re really vulnerable.”

Coronavirus Experience 

Black had COVID-19 over the Summer. He didn’t have many symptoms aside from fatigue, a fact for which he is still grateful.

“The guys were so helpful with that, bringing me food and drinks and continually checking on me,” Black said. “We’d play games from our own rooms while in a Zoom meeting, just so I wouldn’t feel lonely or left out.”

They continued the group Zoom gaming sessions into the Fall, which they all agreed worked wonders for them to relieve stress from their online classes and the dangers from their jobs.

“Regardless who wins the election or if we have in-person classes next year, I can’t imagine things will be the same as before for a long time,” Fregenal said. “I’ll probably always wear a mask and keep sanitizer with me.”

Right now, the four of them are focused on doing their jobs well and making it through this semester’s finals. They try not to worry about next semester because things are continually in flux. However, that’s not always possible.

“I really just want to know what’s going to happen. Not just with next semester, but in general. I want to know when I can actually smile at a patient or not worry that I might be exposing them or my friends.,” Cooper said. “I’m just anxious about it all.”

Until they receive an email from their university, the four of them will keep opening up a Zoom meeting and playing their game, Among Us, together.

Edited by: Luke Buxton