Growing up in Texas, Virginia Wells wanted to be the second coming of legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. One small problem: "I can't sing," she said.
Fortunately, Wells had a nice fallback plan — medicine. After earning her MD from the University of Texas Medical Branch in 1985, she's worn a closet's worth of hats. She taught and researched at the Medical College of Virginia, and she had a private practice in Williamsburg.
For 11 years, she was Director of William & Mary's Student Health Center. Now, she's Chief Medical Officer, Director of Medical Service, and team physician for Tribe athletics.
With COVID-19 having scrapped college sports for the spring, there's little for Wells to do in that regard. But one of her specialties is infectious diseases, where she completed a Fellowship at MCV in 1992.
William & Mary has been closed to the public for the past five weeks, but with some employees still working on campus, Wells has conducted seminars on how to do their jobs safely. This is a terrible time, but for Wells, also a time to shine, as combating infectious disease falls right in her wheelhouse.
Q: Though you're not working with athletes at the moment, you're providing a very important service with your knowledge of infectious diseases. Can you discuss your talks with workers on how to remain safe on the job?
A: I did some educational talks with the entire facilities group. They included the custodial staff as well as electricians and plumbers, all of the folks who work in facilities who are having to be on campus during this time. I did a couple of information sessions to try to get their questions answered and give them some guidelines on how they can maintain safety. ... These are just things that will protect you even beyond COVID-19 including the regular cough, cold and flu season. The primary action that I emphasized was avoiding touching their faces, which is something that we all do.
Additionally, the facilities folks have to meet at the start of their day and prepare for work. I suggested they do that remotely before they start the day. I acknowledged the challenge of maintaining social distancing when they're doing their work. For example, the electricians have to work closely together if they're working on an electrical panel, they can't maintain a safe six-foot distance. So for those individuals, even before masks were a thing to do, they needed to wear masks in order to provide protection.
Q: Were these sessions in-person?
A: I offered two in person sessions to facilities supervisors on two separate days at 30-minute intervals with less than 10 people each session. I later created a video, which could be viewed by the entire staff and provide an opportunity to have the message delivered directly from me.
Q: You also donated masks, correct?
A: The CDC changed the recommendation and indicated that all individuals going out to grocery stores and public spaces should wear face protection. Given that recommendation, I thought it prudent to offer the masks as additional protection for our facilities staff. Sports medicine department had some masks that we're obviously not using and we were happy to provide 300 standard masks to the facilities department.
Q: Although this is an awful time, I would imagine that as someone who studies infectious diseases, this is also a fascinating time.
A: Yeah, it is. I've been talking with my colleagues at VCU and MCV, which is where I trained, and we're all just fascinated by this. And not at all surprised. This is something that infectious disease specialists knew was going to happen. We've had world pandemics every 100 years starting with the Bubonic plague, cholera, Spanish Flu ... These viruses are clever with the ability to jump species. And with the ease of travel the world seems to be getting smaller.
We are seeing mumps on a lot of college campuses. Pertussis is on the rise worldwide. We continue to see the reemergence of old infectious diseases, so it's very fascinating. It's also horrible to see the toll COVID-19 has taken on lives in our country. But we're going to get to the other side of this with the aggressive mitigation plans that are in place, so I'm optimistic about it.
Q: Also as someone in your profession, it must be frustrating to see people ignoring social distance guidelines.
A: When people don't know anyone who's had the disease, I think somehow they feel it's not going to happen to them. But when you just look at what's happening in New York, you see how this can happen anywhere. It is frustrating. Anytime I see a group of people gathered, I just go, 'What are they thinking?'
Q: You came to athletics after spending 11 years as Director of Student Health. Did working with athletes appeal to you?
A: Oh, absolutely. I just relate to them so well having been a student athlete (at Austin College in Sherman, Texas) myself and knowing what a challenge it is to balance academics and athletics. I enjoy interacting with them, so it's just always been something that I wanted to do. I think they're unique in terms of their motivation and resilience. It's really been a pleasure just being around sports in general.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a doctor?
A: When I was like 13 or 14. It's really fortunate that I got to work alongside a surgeon when I was a young kid. His wife and my mom were teachers together. I think his secretary got sick once, and he jokingly wanted to know if I knew my ABCs and if I wanted to come work in his office and do some filing. I was like, of course! That became a summer job.
So I saw what he was doing and I said, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' Then he invited me into the operating room, and I was I was blown away. After that, I was like, this is exactly what I want to do. I want to be a doctor.