An Open Letter to My Students About Masks

10 Feb

An open letter to my students regarding masks in the classroom.

Dear students,

I want to talk for a minute about the University’s recent announcement that they’re lifting mask requirements in the classroom. I’m going to ask you all to keep wearing them in my class. Not because I like masks—I don’t. They’re hot, they’re gross, and they’re deeply uncomfortable to teach in. I totally hate them and I wish COVID would go away so that I could stop having to do it.

Here’s the reason. Fair warning, it’s about to get really personal.

I have a disability. It’s an autoimmune condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS).

I’m not, technically speaking, immunocompromised. Not in the traditional sense. I’m not more likely to die of a cold or the flu than anybody else, and I’m actually pretty good on the immune front. I’ve had the flu maybe five times that I can remember in my adult life.

But I do have an autoimmune disease. What that means, for me, is that my body has trouble identifying what it should and should not react to. For example, it hates antibiotics and broccoli (and some other random things like adhesives, nail polish, and sunflower oil). One of those things is in the tetanus vaccine, although we don’t know which thing in the vaccine causes me to react to it.

It also means I metabolize things… oddly. For instance, Novocain does nothing for me at all while Benadryl, which puts most people to sleep, makes me hyper. Steroids give me muscle tremors, while a half of a Perocet causes full-on visual hallucinations.

Now I’m lucky. I took the risk of getting vaccinated against COVID, and I didn’t have an anaphylactic reaction to the Pfizer vaccine. So I’ve been able to do that, but I know people with EDS who haven’t. One couldn’t walk for a week. One went blind for two days. One person had seizures.

The point is, EDS and its related immune responses are unpredictable and seemingly random, even to those of us who have it. That means that anything new—a new disease, a new drug treatment, a new food, a new soap… a new anything is playing roulette with our immune responses.

COVID, despite manifesting like a mild cold or the flu for most vaccinated people, is a vascular illness. It impacts multiple systems.

EDS is a collagen disorder. You know what collagen makes up? Almost everything in the human body, including the vascular system.

COVID has been known to cause heart conditions, strokes, lung damage, and so on. I already have a hole in my heart from EDS, and sometimes it gives me difficulty breathing. But COVID also triggers something called a cytokine storm as a result of immune system hyper-activation—which is about the most terrifying thing you can say to someone with a wildly unpredictable immune system.

For most people, the vaccine seems to reasonably predict their symptoms of illness. Flu-like feelings, fever, aches, congestion, fatigue.

When I got the first vaccine and the booster, I had increased joint pain and fatigue, but because I always have fluctuating joint pain and fatigue, I’m actually not sure if that was just life that week or if it was a vaccine reaction.

The one thing I am sure was related to the vaccine (first shot and booster) was the thing that scares me a lot about the possibility of getting COVID. My arm—the humerus—spontaneously dislocated.

As in, it literally just slid out of my shoulder socket.

I was in the shower the first time and sitting quietly in the car the second time. And it just… slid out. And became mostly useless. I could still wiggle my fingers and bend my elbow, but I couldn’t move the shoulder joint. It also ached quite a bit, which one would expect if one’s arm is not actually attached.

I’d seen discussions that suggest that the COVID vaccine might increase tissue laxity, so it wasn’t a total shock, but it wasn’t pleasant and it was still a bit disturbing. In both cases, I was able to reset it and the tissues re-tightened after 36-48 hours, so my arm started behaving normally again.

If that’s my vaccine reaction, what on earth would happen to me if I contract COVID? I know someone whose hips both dislocated and she lost the ability to walk with COVID on top of being hospitalized because she couldn’t breathe as her ribs slid out of place and her lungs grew congested. (She recovered.)

That is not just “like a mild cold or the flu.” That’s “my body no longer functions like a human body in any capacity and appears to be made of jello.”

So if you want to know why I’m asking you to keep masking in my classroom, it’s because I am required by my job to teach face-to-face because I don’t have a commonly recognized illness that leads to immunocompromization. I have something messed-up and rare that mostly lets me still do my job, but could literally cripple me if I catch this disease.

So I’m going to go one step farther and I’m going to ask you to consider wearing masks in your other classes, too. Not because you have to, but because not all of your faculty or your classmates or the staff at the University are going to feel comfortable talking publicly about their invisible disabilities or their kids’ or spouses’ or parents’ illnesses or disabilities. To explain to you why I want you to mask means I have to tell you about my disability, and that’s deeply personal. But I’m doing it so that those other people don’t have to.

What if the student who sits next to you has fibromyalgia? Or your professor has something like EDS or post-viral syndrome? What if the staff person who cleans your dorm bathroom has lupus? What if a faculty or staff member or student has a parent or spouse or child with cancer? You can’t see most of these conditions (although I wear finger ring-splints and a knee brace and often k-tape because of mine), but they are all at increased risk either of contracting COVID or, like me, of experiencing severe complications if they contract COVID.

So yes, I’m asking you to keep wearing your mask to make it easier and less stressful for people who are in the same weird, in-between space that I am so that they don’t have to tell you all about their medical problems in order for you to be willing to wear a mask when indoors and unable to maintain distance.

I’m asking you do to this, too, because the University won’t, even though we’ve asked them to. And because society at large won’t, because people who are elderly or immunocompromised don’t “count” as full-fledged people. And because many people who wish you would wear a mask feel too self-conscious to ask.

If we can go outside for a meeting, you can go mask-free around me. That’s fine. But indoors, particularly in the tight spaces of a classroom or meeting room (like my office), please wear a mask.

Because even though COVID is mild for a lot of people, it’s not likely to be that easy for me and for a lot of other people at this University. And we’d like to be able to keep working/studying/teaching with you.

Dr. B.