Taking the temperature: How’s your physical, emotional health?

How are you? The question before COVID-19 was often an obligatory, unheard, rhetorical conversation starter. But, now, people seem to really care when they ask, and people seem to really want to tell you how they are. We asked five people from various backgrounds essentially the same question — how were they maintaining their physical and emotional health?

Doctor, on the run at work and home

Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor.

Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor, 44, of Louisville, runs the non-intensive care unit COVID floor at Jewish Hospital.

On her health pre COVID-19:
“So about three years ago, my brother passed away, and I found that running was my retreat — it was what I needed to heal. And that’s actually what kept me going through all of it. … But for me, running, working out, just being physically active has been a great stress reliever. My job is stressful. Even before COVID, my job was stressful or is stressful, and so I need that outlet where if I want to run really fast or if I want to throw weights around, do something that’s energy, whether it’s a negative energy, positive energy, I need to get it out somehow. And so that’s how I’ve been able to take care of myself.”

On how working on a COVID-19 floor affects her wellbeing:
“It’s mentally exhausting. … It was mentally exhausting No. 1, to have to come back after being off for two days; I was getting used to enjoying not being in the hospital. And then to have to get up this morning and know I had to come in… And just today was a difficult day. I found out while I was gone, two of the patients I had in the ICU passed away. So that was tough to come into, to hear that. And then one of the patients yelled at me this morning, because she’s been here two weeks and wants to go home, but she’s not well enough to go home, and having to try to explain to her that I understand, it’s hard to be here. And she started to cry, because she hasn’t seen her family in two weeks. And I wanted to cry with her, and it was frustrating. So today has been a tough day. And that’s the toughest part. It’s not the long hours, it’s the emotions you go through because you feel for these patients.”

On how she’s coping with closed gyms:
“Not that I knew COVID was going to happen, but I had built myself a little [home] workout room with a treadmill, weights and so forth. So, when the gyms shut down, my husband and I were actually OK, because we had a little setup in our basement. And that’s pretty much where I go when I leave work. I leave work, I actually will shower in my office, because that was one of the deals, I have to shower before I go home. And I put on workout clothes, and then I go workout. … I work out for about an hour, just to get the stress out before dinner, and then I feel like I can be normal, and I can be around my family.”

Singer stays in present by looking back

Vinny Castellano.

Vinny Castellano, 30, is the lead singer of the thrash punk band Belushi Speed Ball.

On keeping a sense of normality through a routine:
“I try to really make sure I get my sleep in. There’s no sense in only getting four or five hours of sleep or whatever anymore. I try to make sure I get eight hours of sleep. And, every day, I wake up, I make a cup of coffee and I sit out on my balcony and look outside. And that’s how I start my day. I’ll read or I’ll play on the Switch for a half an hour. I workout almost every day. I go for a run, and I weight lift in the house and I hang out with the cat. That’s what’s really important to me, to maintain that routine.”

On how pop culture nostalgia is helping out:
“I’ve been going back and playing old video games I haven’t played. I’ve been watching old TV series I haven’t watched. Just trying to get caught up on all of that stuff that we put on the back-burner.”

On how he’s been able to spend more time on his hobby ‘Warhammer 40,000,’ a miniature wargame where each player builds and paints each unit before competing:
“It’s a sci-fi tabletop game. For people that aren’t familiar with it, it’s like the battle portion of ‘Dungeons & Dragons.’ You make an army and you fight other people. There’s actually a really big community here in Louisville dedicated to that game. What ends up happening is, because it’s a completive game, you end up building models that you need specific to your army. You might’ve had a box of a specific character or model or whatever that wasn’t necessarily competitive and you didn’t get a chance to paint them, because you didn’t have time. So, I’ve been able to work on my back-pile — they call it your pile of shame.”

On how Belushi Speed Ball has remained creative during this time from a distance, by sharing parts through the internet:
“Honestly, this is no different a technique than when I did the first couple of albums, to where you just send the riffs around to each other, because maybe you can’t get to each other face-to-face. There’s a lot of bands where they live in different states, and they do that. And the other part of the band, Beau Kaelin, Señor Diablo, he’s been using this time to make a lot of episodes, because that’s very much a part of the band, as much as me playing guitar, him doing the ‘Señor Diablo Show’ [search for it on YouTube].”

Artist creatively works through it

Tiffany Ackerman.

Tiffany Ackerman, 39, of Louisville, is an artist who works in glass, paint and mixed media and is the manager at Flame Run Studio and Gallery.

On staying healthy pre COVID-19:
“Before the pandemic, I was doing contract work at four different places, teaching, curating and bookkeeping. Throw in my desire to spend some time with my family, and some time trying to make art, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else. Normally I prefer to be very busy. I always need to feel like I’m contributing. I could sometimes squeeze in the odd Pilates class at Wild and Woolly Pilates (which I love) or try to do it at home without canine or feline interference (not much luck there), but in general, when I get home I often just decompress. I’m not sure I have ever been what most would consider in the best physical or mental health. I’ve come to recognize that my desire to keep busy is in a lot of ways a crutch to distract me from my own negative thinking. This gives me lots of options of other things to focus on: the next exhibit I want to show, the next piece I want to make, the next lesson plan for my YMCA Safe Place Class.”

On how that has changed:
“To be honest, the idea of this much downtime was terrifying. I went from having a lot of responsibilities to almost no responsibility in two days. Like many others, I think I was feeling the fear and uncertainty and the lack of control over my life. I had to keep reminding myself that I hadn’t been fired, just on a temporary leave. The first few weeks I did a lot of cleaning the house and working in the yard in an attempt to feel some control over my surroundings. In that kind of mindset, it was really difficult for me to make any art. Art shows were getting canceled so it seemed that no one would even see any of my new work, [and] exhibits I had spent months curating were suddenly in jeopardy of never being installed. I was infected with a general malaise of ‘what’s the point?’”

On whether she has focused more or less on her wellbeing:
“I watched a lot of ‘Project Runway’ and ‘Face Off’ and similar shows. Since I was completely unable to bring myself to make art, I decided to be content watching others create. Damon Thompson started his quarantine mural project, and I waited eagerly to see his next mural and think about how I needed to find a way to kick it into gear too. Finally, sick of staring at a pile of work I had been accumulating in preparation for the Butchertown Art Show, I decided to post some of it online for sale just to feel a bit proactive. If I wasn’t in a place to make new work, then I thought I should at least take the time to update my website and Instagram and show the things that I actually had. Then like a miracle, I sold a piece, then a second and then a third. It made me feel like the work I was making actually mattered. People liked it, and more than anything else, I should start making something. One of the upcoming shows I had planned at Flame Run was ‘RetroFuturism;’ it had seemed so appropriate for 2020 when Brook [White, owner of Flame Run] and I talked about it last year. All of the sudden, I decided that this time for myself gave me the opportunity to make something for the show. Maybe I just needed a deadline?”

On barriers to staying healthy:
“The hardest thing for me is I’m a hugger. Whether my buddies go [out] or not, I want to hug them. But it’s all about social responsibility.”

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On how she rates her health status:
“Right now, I’m happy. Making a stained-glass window is part paint by number and part puzzle. I have more cuts on my fingers than I would like, but I feel productive, and that is essential to my mental health. Being or feeling idle is really hard for me. Physically? Well, I still try to do a bit of Pilates, or walk the dog, but physical activity has never been a big force in my life, not even as a kid. Knock on wood, so far, I seem to be in pretty decent health. This year I turn 40, and I know that working out and being active are just going to get harder.”

On her thoughts about coworkers and friends returning to gyms:
“I applaud anyone trying to get physical. I suspect I’ve gotten the flu before from my infrequent gym visits, so don’t want to take chances. Probably no real change in my life. I have a membership; I go in spurts like many others; I will probably continue my intentions to hit a Pilates class at least once a week if I can, but otherwise the gym would not be the first place to find me.”

Chef stays healthy by choice

AuCo Lai.

AuCo Lai, 30, of Louisville, is sous chef at Barn8 at Hermitage Farm in Goshen.

On staying healthy pre COVID-19:
“Before all of this happened, I just was at work all of the time, and work is labor-intensive. So I pretty much used work to stay healthy, which sounds counterintuitive for most people because the food industry is not something most people consider healthy, I guess. I work anywhere between 11 and 14 hours a day, lifting heavy things all day long. Because I work on a farm, it is a lot of area so I spend a lot of time running around. It is not like I am standing in one place all day, like in a lot of kitchens. And I would go hiking and meditate. Meditating is like a regular part of my life. Just as a practice of self-awareness that I had picked up maybe about 10 years ago.”

On how that has changed:
“I have been able to go on more hikes now that we have this down time. I was hiking a little bit more until they started closing the parks. And with the bars and the restaurants all closed, I honestly have been making a solid effort to drink less. I know a lot of people — because people are home and things are hard, a lot of people are drinking at home, but I made a conscious decision when all of this started to not do that and have been working really hard to not drink at home. And I have more time at home, so I can meal prep a little bit better and really focus on the meals I am eating at home instead of eating whatever is easy once I get home from work. And so my diet has changed significantly, and I have been able to spend more time outside than I have in a long time.”

On whether she has focused more or less on her wellbeing:
“Yes, I have to be more cautious about the choices I am making, in terms of what I am eating and drinking, now that we have been home. And so that has been my way of coping with the emotional and mental stress and the uncertainty, which has been really taxing and really terrifying. So, I did spend a lot of time staring at the wall all day and feeling anxious and scared and depressed. Like really depressed. And so just making the little decisions of like what are we eating for dinner tonight, no I am not going to buy that bottle of bourbon, has allowed me to have a bit more control in a situation where I have very little.”

On barriers to staying healthy:
“The mental and emotional strain of the uncertainty and the fear. And even the idea of looking toward the future. What do we do when all of this starts to die down like it is now? How do I bring my staff back? How do I keep my customers safe? How do I keep myself safe? Are people going to come out? What happens to the industry as a whole?”

On working with the LEE Initiative to help people in service industry:
“There is a lot of moving, a lot of running around, a lot of heavy lifting, talking to people at a distance, just being aware of what my and everyone else’s situation is. It is emotionally taxing. The first time you see a friend or every time you see a friend pull up to receive an aide package, sometimes you were not expecting it, and it wrecks you. It is so hard to see how many people are struggling. … “

On how she rates her health status:
“On a 10 scale, with 10 being great and everything is fine, some days I am an eight, or I think I am even a nine. Where I am like, yeah, I can totally handle this. … Honestly, anywhere probably between a four and a seven. It is all over the place. Sometimes I am absolutely in the pits. I am like, what do I do? How do I live? I don’t even want to. And then other days it is like, I can handle this, and I can tackle this. And I am not going to go down without a fight.”

On her thoughts about co-workers and friends returning to gyms:
“We have talked about that, too, because for such a small restaurant, it affects us if someone decides to go to the gym. … None of us are ready to go back to the gym or anything like that. I swim a lot. I am not ready to go back to the pool. I think it is going to be a long time before any of us feel safe about it.”

Grocery worker on the front line

Dustin Pickett and his daugter Juniper, 7.

Dustin Pickett, 37, of The South End, who worked at Trader Joe’s.

On his mental health as an essential worker:
“It’s been really, really, really difficult actually. So, I think I told you that I had a background in doing social work, and I left that work because I was tired of being a front-line, essential person and dealing with crises. And so personally I feel like it found me again. And so I’ve found a kind of sense of vacillating between doom and hope. And it’s, I typically am a person who follows a bigger vision than the context that I’m in at the moment. I’ve always got some horizon that I’m moving towards, and when I’ve felt supported, and I have people with me who are heading toward that vision, I feel good. When I feel like basic safety conditions are not being met, and I’m working with the general public, some of whom are protesting quarantine all together, and who are intentionally putting people’s lives in danger, I feel frustrated, I feel angry, I feel heartbroken, and I feel incredibly anxious most of the time. And it’s been, it’s been a serious roller coaster of emotions. It’s like, sometimes I’m great, and I’m floating, and riding this sense of, I can do this, we’re doing this together, we’ve got this. And then I kind of drop back to this, I don’t know. It’s just where I’m literally paralyzed for a couple of days, and it’s all I can do to get through a couple of days.”

On using mutual care for mental and physical help:
“I think the virus has revealed that we really do need self- and other-care. We need community-based models for mutual care because we cannot take care of ourselves on our own; we really do need one another. And I think the pandemic, from an essential workers’ perspective, has revealed some of the vulnerabilities in our system’s ability to take care of our people. And I know for myself I’m really leaning heavily and supporting my fellow workers and people who I am in this situation with. So, we’re frequently checking in on each other and helping each other process our experiences. …One of my coworkers recently ran some supplies and some groceries over to another coworkers’ house when they were feeling ill, so we’re finding ways to work around social distancing and still check on each other physically as well. ”

On his usual exercise habits (t’ai chi and yoga):
“Those can be solitary activities, but they can also be group activities. I think that’s what’s hard right now is that we’re experiencing, I really do believe that doing things like that as a group, and also dancing, is powerful — making music, singing together. Those are all things I really value and are not always accessible right now because of quarantine. So it’s harder to do group activities right now, but honestly, technology is helping a lot. Being able to have Zoom calls and video chats with people like as a group and just staying connected and seeing people’s faces is really, really valuable right now.

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