A wonderful assurance: Memories from my first quarantine

By Mike O’Neill

I can still spell mycoplasma pneumoniae even though it has been years since I was quarantined the first time. COVID-19 brought so many memories rushing back, and they are … wonderful memories.

Mind you, “wonderful” is not a word I used at the time, or any time shortly thereafter. But my first quarantine wasn’t the end of the world, and I am the better for it. I pray that is the case for most of us.

Many years ago, I ran a summer camp for at-risk children and youth. There were 200 children on the property and 100 staff. Our infirmary kept a log of every request for medical care, no matter how small. The log tracked the camper, counselor, cabin, and details of the medical need. Just as it was designed to do, it quickly revealed a pattern of illness emerging in the camp.

Mycoplasma pneumoniae is a bacteria that often emerges in closed communities like college dorms or communities such as the Amish or Orthodox Jewish. We learned patient zero did, indeed, pick it up at college. We were well into camp when the bacteria began to make people sick. A little like COVID-19, it mostly ignored our campers, except those with breathing issues. But it did impact our college-aged staff, badly. Those it affected worst developed pneumonia. 

At one point, I was managing two infirmaries, five quarantined cabins, and trying to ensure camp carried on as usual for the healthy. It was brutal. It was hot. It was emotional. We even had a visit from the CDC in suits; they came to take our blood. When it was over, I broke down in tears of exhaustion. I would never want to relive that summer. A few months from now, this may happen for many on the frontlines of this present crisis too.

However, my memories mostly center around the unexpected moments of joy, purpose, and sacrifice. 

I think of Ben, a young man who ended up in the boys quarantined cabin and, although sick himself, was effectively a camp counselor for sick boys 24/7. He couldn’t even go outside! Would you believe he is a head of a high school in Rwanda now? I can, because throughout quarantine, he smiled. He never lost sight of the boys and their needs. Or mine, honestly. I clearly recall him saying, “Whatever you need Mr. Mike.” And Ben did whatever it took.

From all over the country, alumni and alumni parents, got in cars and drove to camp.  That’s correct, people drove into an illness. Why? Because they love camp and the many children who become believers while at this camp. They became counselors, kitchen staff, lifeguards, maintenance help, and program specialists. They served. And those in quarantine also served – by staying inside. We all worked together until the bacteria was under control. And then we all collapsed.

Those in quarantine also served – by staying inside. We all worked together until the bacteria was under control. And then we collapsed.

And then, we all got on with life.

And then, in time, the memories became “wonderful.”

As I reflect on that time, I think of the volunteers who stopped their lives to help us. Of the many sleepless nights in the infirmary as people cared for those struggling to breathe. Of the junior leaders who stepped up and welcomed more responsibility. Of those who were continually shifted from their beds to make way for quarantine or arriving volunteers.  Of the healthy staff keeping the camp running for the campers. Of the ER staff in the hospital who I came to know – not only by sight, but by name too.

I look back and wonder at the ways the Lord used a terrible situation for our good. 

Now, make no mistake, COVID-19 is an entirely different situation. This is a virus, and we don’t yet know how to kill it. It is causing distress among the elderly, health compromised, and uninsured, as well as their friends and families.

When it is over – and it will be over – we will all be impacted in some way. Some will have lost loved ones.

Employment. Businesses. Savings. Opportunities. So the last thing I wish to do is tell you your memories will be “wonderful” when your grief is great. But I can assure you the Bible is just as true during COVID-19 as it was at my camp … and as it was during the happiest and most joyous moment of your life.

In Romans 8:28 we are assured. We are..assured: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV).

The days ahead are hard to predict and may be painful. We need to stand by each other – even strangers whom we might have to help from a distance of six feet. It may get so hard we want collapse. But he who knows the end from the beginning offers a wondrous assurance. We may all suffer loss, but he is working for our good.