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

Nigerian-Americans Find Community at Independence Day Celebration

By Ruth Samuel

At 808 Hodges Street in Raleigh lies the Reign Lounge, an empty nightclub with a fading baby blue exterior and brown shingle roof, temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Behind the club, its parking lot is full, overflowing with life.

Lyrics to “Koroba” by Tiwa Savage are blaring from the speakers.

“Who no like enjoyment? If money dey for pocket? Shebi na national budget o?”

Dressed in matching lavender ankara sets, aunties with penciled eyebrows and pencil skirts dance to the beat of congas and snare drums. Some Yoruba men are clad in black agbadas with matching loafers, others are flaunting 2018 Super Eagle football jerseys, and a select few Igbo elders wear their hard-earned bright red chief caps.

There’s a 40-minute line forming for the only thing Nigerians can impatiently wait on: jollof rice, chicken, and spicy, mouth-watering suya. As smoke emerges from the coal grill, “Pana” by Tekno is playing instead of “If” by Davido, the go-to song American DJs play for Africans if they know nothing about Afrobeats.

A Moment of Celebration

This is Independence Day.

Nothing, not even a global pandemic, can stop Nigerians across the diaspora from celebrating 60 years of freedom from the grip of British colonizers. Nigerians are the largest African immigrant population in the United States, with over 1,000 Nigerian-born residents in Raleigh alone.

“Eh, people decided to, now,” said Uchenna Richards in his big-city Lagos accent to someone pulling up. “It’s past five o’clock. We’re Nigerians. After you tell people once or twice what to do, they’re like, ‘Ah, I’ma leave this guy.’”

The 38-year-old Richards, a Greensboro resident, has lived in America for the past 25 years and graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. In 2006, he was tired of traveling out of town to celebrate his home country, so he spawned this celebration idea with his friends, and the event has become a tradition ever since.

This year, he wanted to try a COVID-conscious drive-thru cookout. On October 3, the event started at 1 p.m. and ended at 6 p.m., but it seems Nigerians are incapable of following someone else’s instructions. Running on “African Time,” folks were still trickling in at 5:11 p.m., parking along the street, and lingering.

“At the beginning, it was more like, ‘Let’s just get people to just drive through, get some food and go,’” Richards said. “Some people didn’t want to leave, so we figured, we’ll start off by telling people if you want to stay, park down the street.”

Huddled together in masks, groups of young adults are drinking Sprite or Vita Malt, greeting each other. Middle-aged men are slapping the backs of their palms three times followed by a hug. As soon as “Killin Dem” by rapper Burna Boy comes on, the small crowd erupts in cheers.

“At school, I’m PJ or Petronilla. Here, I’m Oge,” said Amaogechukwu Egbuna, sitting on the hood of a black SUV with her friends. Her real name — the name that Nigerian parents labor and pray over — means “in God’s time.”

Egbuna, a first-generation Nigerian-American, attends East Carolina University and came home just to attend the 14th annual celebration with her mom and auntie. She was craving the seasoned food and feeling of community that she couldn’t get at school.

“Being Nigerian is amazing because it’s one of the greatest African countries in the world, one of the most known countries in the world,” the 20-year-old Egbuna said. “You know Nigerians, we love to throw parties and celebrate.”

A Catalyst for Community

In the ever-growing suya line, stands “Mirabelle” Nneoma Uma, wearing a neon green, yellow, and pink dashiki. As a little girl runs through the queue with a ball the size of her head, Uma is checking for messages from her relatives via WhatsApp.

“This event is about getting to meet people, fellow Nigerians, and socializing,” said Uma, who emigrated from Abia State two years ago. “The United States is a very individualistic country, so it’s really nice to be able to socialize and connect with fellow Nigerians, fellow Africans generally. I still really miss Nigeria.”

The 29-year-old is a graduate student at UNC Greensboro. She said the biggest change after moving to the United States was being in a country “where the structure works, roads are well-paved, and opportunity seems possible. The National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) in Nigeria isn’t fully functional.

Uma and her friends turn to face the caterer, Prince Kalu of PK Suya, as he scolds everyone in line and reminds them to not take more than one piece of chicken. When Kalu announces that there’s no more suya left, attendees groan and leave the line, some rolling their eyes, and others sucking their teeth, eliciting a distinctly West African sound of disdain and disgust.

Life in the United States

Yards away, fanning herself comfortably under a tent, wearing a green t-shirt, jeans, and black slip-on hospital shoes is Amaka Ofodile, a member of the Nigerian Nurses Association with over 16 years of nursing experience. She immigrated to the United States 27 years ago and first landed in Newark, New Jersey.

“I don’t know what I was expecting to see,” Ofodile said. “I actually went back home, then after some time, I came back again. I thought in America, money just comes. I didn’t know you’d have to work so hard in order to eat. America is really difficult.”

Along with their three-panel posterboard, members of the Nigerian Nurses Association of North Carolina (NNANC) were handing out informational pamphlets on hypertension and domestic violence, which saw a 134% increase in Nigeria in 2018. Despite its issues, Ofodile misses Enugu state, so events like this bring home closer to her.

Ofodile said, “I miss everything about Nigeria: the food, the social life, the vegetables. Everything is real, organic. We don’t have adulterated food. We’re having some challenges in Nigeria, no 24-hour light, food, and water, but our country is working on it. There is hope.”

Richards believes that this celebration is a necessity, a reminder of the progress made and the progress yet to come.

“I tell people this is the one event where you can get Nigerians of different tribes and there will be no problems,” said Richards, who is Igbo. “Growing up, our generation versus the parents’ generation, there was this big tribalistic problem. When it comes to independence, for that weekend and that day, everyone puts everything aside.”

 

Edited by: Luke Buxton

UNC Athletic Trainer Scott Oliaro Adjusting Role as COVID-19 Continues

By: Brian Keyes
Staff writer

Physical therapy wasn’t for Scott Oliaro, he knew that much. His friends and colleagues sing his praises, pausing during an interview to make sure you recognize just how great he is. How he’s uncommonly communicative and empathetic with the UNC athletes, coaches and staff he sees every day.

But 26 years ago, just months after finishing a brief career playing American football all the way out in Finland, UNC’s current Associate Director of Sports Medicine found himself working in a physical therapy clinic before entering UNC’s graduate school for athletic training.

Sure, the basics of physical therapy are the same as athletic training. One works with people to help regain their range of motion, flexibility and strength. Asking “does it hurt when you bend your right knee? How about the left one? Can you flex both legs for me?”

However, physical therapy wasn’t Oliaro’s passion. He didn’t want to see people walk on their feet, he wanted to see people sprint and fly through the air. When Oliaro played football at Cornell, he had to work every day for months to come back from a strained hamstring. Those moments gave him energy; physical therapy didn’t.

At the clinic, Oliaro once treated a football player who tore several ligaments in his knee. He wasn’t expected to return to football after his surgery, but he worked countless hours with the athletic trainers and on his own to regain the speed and strength he once had. Not only did that player get back on the field, but he also played multiple years in the NFL.

It was athletes like that made Oliaro realize his true calling. He enjoyed watching athletes work back from injury to pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, these individuals went to athletic trainers, not physical therapists.

“People weren’t always as committed to doing the work and putting in the effort to getting better,” Oliaro said 27 years later, reflecting on how he knew physical therapy wasn’t for him. “So I wanted to work with people who were as committed as I was.”

When Oliaro switched professions, no one questioned his credentials and experience, He holds Cornell’s record for single-game rushing yards and remains seventh all-time in career touchdowns. Additionally, Oliaro was inducted to his alma mater’s hall of fame, won an Ivy League championship at Cornell in 1990, and was twice named to the All-Ivy second team.

“I think that’s incredibly important when you’re dealing with kids,” UNC head field hockey coach Karen Shelton said about Oliaro. “Nobody wants somebody that hasn’t walked the walk.”

Weathering Storms 

Ask a random athlete what makes someone a good athletic trainer and they might tell you their trainer needs knowledgable or communicative. Ask Mario Ciocca, the Director of Sports Medicine at UNC, what makes Scott Oliaro a good athletic trainer? His willingness to weather storms. Literally.

Oliaro would take it upon himself during hurricanes or weather-caused university shutdowns to tell his staff to stay at home and check that they were safe before heading to the Stallings Evans Sports Medicine Center to treat the athletes who still had to go through recovery.

“It’s just little things like that,” Ciocca said. He then quickly corrected himself. “Actually that’s a huge thing.”

Oliaro’s other virtues are small tasks but are all incredibly important to build trust with a coach and their players. He texts the men’s golf team words of encouragement while they’re at a tournament and he comforts a field hockey player when he has to deliver the news that she tore her ACL.

“He’s invested in the people that he’s close with, he wants them to be successful, he wants to help,” Andrew DiBitetto, the men’s golf coach at UNC, said. “It’s pretty simple, he’s just an incredible human being.”

Coronavirus Confusion 

Last Sunday, Oliaro was covering a field hockey practice as the team’s head athletic trainer, a position he’s held since 2007. It was a brisk morning, a nice reprieve from the sweltering North Carolina heat and humidity that UNC athletes know all too well during the first days of fall training.

The practice is a brief respite from the confusion that has become Oliaro’s job for the past six months. Working with athletes as an athletic trainer is all about knowable — what was their range of motion before an injury? What about after? Are they able to lift the same amount of weight?

When COVID-19 came, it made Oliaro and the rest of the sports medicine department’s job incredibly difficult. There is no cure or vaccine and the long term effects of the virus are inconclusive.

At that first practice, the feelings of confusion, worrying and vulnerability were present since back on March 13, when the United States declared COVID-19 a national emergency.

Oliaro thinks back to how he would have handled this pandemic had it struck back in his playings days.

“Not well,” he freely admits.

According to Oliaro, he would have felt cheated like something was stolen from him. These thoughts help him understand just how hard this has been for his athletes.

“It’s difficult,” he said with a sigh, taking a moment to collect his thoughts.

“When you get calls from kids who aren’t feeling well or have tested positive, to try and talk with them to make sure they’re ok, try to manage them from a health and safety standpoint, as well as a mental health standpoint.”

Sports at UNC are still happening, for now. Football started last Saturday and the first game of the season for field hockey was on Sunday.

Is he scared? UNC’s Associate Director of Sports Medicine won’t say for sure. He’s unsure about what’s coming next, when the pandemic will end, and what the world will look like when it does.

For now, he’s trying to control what he can, keeping the focus on the athletes who depend on him to keep their bodies strong. So, he tries to keep his spirits high, and with another sigh, he soldiers on into the unknown.

Edited by: Luke Buxton