RIVERTON — One of the most indelible memories in any adult's life is the first week away from home.
It may have involved a new job, a wedding or a college dorm room.
But rest assured, we all remember when we spread our wings for the first time and left the nest.
For Kelsey Greenwood, of Riverton, her first week was more challenging than most.
In May, Kelsey graduated valedictorian from Riverton High School and was accepted into the University of Iowa’s honors program. She aspires to be a physician and is in the school’s premed program.
After driving to Iowa City, the 18-year-old met her roommate, Annie Gaughan. The two hit it off. Annie is also a freshman premed major and hails from Park Ridge. But they both knew it was going to be a different freshman experience than many of the older peers; they were entering college in era of COVID-19.
The pair headed out for pizza with friends and spent the evening playing games, watching videos and getting to know others. They wore masks — except when they were eating.
The next morning Annie woke up with a headache.
“The university issued us masks and thermometers and just for fun we took each other’s temperatures. Annie’s was a little high but not super high. We really didn’t think anything of it,” Kelsey told me in a telephone interview.
When the headache persisted, Annie called home and was told to make a telehealth appointment on campus. According to the Iowa City Press Citizen, a few hours later a doctor called and discussed her symptoms.
“He said, ‘You don’t have symptoms. And I wouldn’t normally put out a referral, but you seem anxious.’”
Later that Sunday afternoon, she had a nasal swab taken on campus.
At 7 p.m. Annie and Kelsey were walking across campus when an email arrived. Annie had tested positive for COVID-19, a disease that has claimed more than 175,000 American lives.
“As far as I know, the email didn’t say anything more as far as telling her what to do or where to go,” Kelsey recalled.
They each returned to their dorm and knocked on their resident assistant’s door.
“He wouldn’t open the door. He just yelled through the door to go back to our room and quarantine. I yelled back that I didn’t want to share a room with an infected person. But he told me that I had to go back to the room and stay there, and the housing department would be in touch.”
He also told the pair not to tell anyone — including their parents.
They sat for hours in their tiny room staring at each other and waiting for direction.
“We were on opposite sides of the room, but I was afraid I was going to catch it. Finally, I needed to go to the bathroom.”
As is the case in most dormitories, restrooms are communal, shared by other residents of the floor.
“I called the RA and asked if I could use the restroom. And he said I could use the toilet — but not the shower — and that I had to shut the door to the stall after I left so no one else would use it after me.”
A few minutes before midnight, five hours after testing positive, a housing official called and told her roommate she had to pack up her things and move to an isolation dorm.
“She was told she had to get everything together and walk across campus with enough stuff for the next two weeks. They suggested she had to carry it all. I went and hunted a cart down for her even though I was supposed to stay in my room.”
The midnight walk alone across campus carrying her things was a frightening experience for her roommate, Kelsey recalled.
When she arrived at her new room, she found that it was filthy and immediately contacted the housing coordinator.
I couldn’t reach Annie Gaughn for comment. But according to the Iowa City newspaper this is what was said:
“I told him that the rooms were horrible, and he said they weren’t really anticipating anyone getting COVID on the first day — said they’d been really busy with regular school operations just getting people here,” Gaughan said.
She said the coordinator told her this was her only option for quarantining on campus: She could stay in Currier [Hall] or have her parents come to get her. Her folks lived more than three hours away.
“I started to feel my heart rate pick up more. I felt dizzy, so I tried to ground myself. I was, like, trying everything I knew to calm down. My hands and legs went numb and tingly. I sat down in a chair in the room they gave me. But, I thought, ‘If I don’t sit down on the floor, I will slide and fall out,’” Gaughan told the newspaper.
Her mom, who had been on the phone with her, called an ambulance.
“By that point, I was so out of it,” Gaughan said.
Law enforcement and EMS responded to Currier at 12:29 a.m. But by the time they arrived, some deep breathing had helped her regain enough composure to feel comfortable, sending the paramedics away.
Meanwhile, her roommate, Kelsey, is back in their old room.
“I really didn’t want to stay in that room because an infected person had been in there. I asked if the university could disinfect the room. They told me it was the responsibility of students to clean their own rooms and that I would have to be quarantined in that room because I had been exposed.
“They acted like I was at fault for being exposed,” she said.
For almost three days, Kelsey waited to be assigned a clean room. Even after testing negative for the virus she was told she could not use a shower in the dorm — because she had been exposed.
“I switched to taking my classes online, because I couldn’t leave my room. Finally, after going two and one-half days without a shower I got a new room. I then packed up and drove home to Riverton.”
Von Stange, an assistant vice president for student life at the university, issued a statement saying in part, “The experience described does not meet the expectations of the university, Housing and Dining and, most importantly, you, the students. For that, I am deeply sorry.”
Meanwhile, Kelsey is completing her quarantine in Sangamon County while she takes her classes online. She continues to test negative for the virus. But when her quarantine is over, she plans to return to Iowa City.
“I just want as normal a college experience as possible,” she said.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.