When almost every one of his fellow Lawn residents departed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, University of Virginia fourth-year student Brett Goerl remained.
Goerl’s mother works on the front lines of COVID-19 treatment, so staying holed up in Room 27 was the safest option. He said it was an interesting couple of months.
On one hand, he experienced the splendor of a spring on the Lawn in an entirely new way. On the other, things were a little eerie, a little lonely and, overall, not exactly what he had envisioned.
But Goerl’s final day on Grounds wound up being one of the highlights of his four years.
Last week, in an effort dubbed “Operation Gratitude,” the Echols Scholar from Gainesville was part of a team that dropped off 60 gift baskets for UVA Health respiratory therapists.
For Goerl, the delivery was extra special. His mother, Kristi, has worked as a respiratory therapist for more than 20 years at Haymarket Medical Center, which is part of the UVA Health network and Novant Health. Goerl said he knows firsthand how respiratory therapists are often the most underappreciated members of a health care team.
“They manage anything related to the patient’s breathing,” said Goerl, a human biology major who graduated with highest distinction Saturday from the College of Arts & Sciences. “A lot of people think that nurses are the ones working ventilators, but all of that work is delegated to the respiratory therapists.
“What’s cool about the respiratory therapists is that they are not assigned to any one floor of the hospital. They go all over the hospital. … They’re running the ventilators; they’re checking the levels of oxygen in the patient’s blood to make sure they’re getting enough to their brain.
“I think there’s a lack of visibility [for respiratory therapists], not for any particular reason. I just think a lot of people don’t realize how many different components make up a health care team. … It’s very collaborative. Everybody makes a very large contribution to delivering quality health care.”
Goerl’s gift basket endeavor was one of seven service projects undertaken by the UVA chapter of COVID-19 Student Service Corps, which was started by UVA student Jeannie Taylor in the wake of the global pandemic.
Goerl and fellow fourth-year Clare Kinsella launched a Go Fund Me campaign that raised $610 for 60 personalized gift baskets. Each contained healthy snacks and various self-care and comfort items, along with gift cards to local restaurants. Goerl’s team partnered with Corner Juice, Boylan Heights and Trinity Irish Pub, who matched their gift card purchases.
“It was amazing to watch [Goerl] put the idea into motion,” Kinsella said. “The project has involved a lot of outreach and coordination, and Brett took all of that head-on.”
When Goerl and Kinsella’s team – which also included classmate Taylor Harvey and incoming School of Medicine student Carley Whitt – dropped the baskets off at a UVA Health loading dock last week, they were greeted by about a dozen respiratory therapists.
“That was awesome to see the joy that it brought to their faces,” Goerl said. “I overheard one of them say, ‘How do they know we’re so often forgotten?’ That really touched my heart.”
“Our goal for the project was to provide something uplifting to express our gratitude and make their day/week a little better,” Kinsella said. “I think it’s safe to say we succeeded.
“It’s heartwarming to know that we are making an impact on a group of people who are so crucial to the COVID-19 efforts but rarely receive the recognition they deserve.”
Now the goal is to raise enough money for 109 more gift baskets, so that all 169 respiratory therapists currently working at UVA Health receive one.
Goerl – whose father, Daniel, is an optometrist – plans to start medical school in 2021.
While at UVA, Goerl used a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award that he earned in 2019 to investigate nontraditional treatments for epileptic seizures.
As somebody hoping to enter the medical field, Goerl admitted the last few months have been tough to witness.
“It’s very sad what’s happening,” he said. “I think it reflects on the instability and how delicate our health care system is in general. Looking back, this kind of seems to have been an inevitable occurrence.
“But one of the biggest lessons I learned in a Darden business seminar I took this semester was to never waste a crisis – that crises often are the impetus for massive and substantial change. So I am very hopeful that leaders of our health care system and government are going to look at this disaster and do better … start realizing how it’s so important that we provide care for everyone.”
Over the weekend, Goerl was able to meet up, in person, with family members for a graduation celebration.
This week, he planned to return to Grounds, where he will – finally – move out of Room 27.
“It was the best experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to live there. I tried to cherish every moment.”
In an odd way, Goerl said he thinks members of his graduating class – even though they spent so much time apart – have created an unbreakable bond.
“I think [the crisis] has brought our class closer,” he said, “because we all shared in the struggle together.
“I foresee our class being more inclined to do reunions and stay in touch.”