On one of our last assemblies of the year, we were able to do a live interview with alumnus Stephen Scheffler, Class of 2002. Stephen is currently working in a hospital in New York City, fighting at the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19.
This is a transcript of the interview, with some edits for clarity. The interview was conducted by Campion Principal Don Reeder and Director of Alumni Darcy Force.
Darcy (DF): We're excited that Stephen Scheffler can join us today. You (students) actually met him once before as he joined us for an assembly in person last fall. Now we're excited to bring him back through this live-streamed interview. As you can see, he's actually walking the streets of New York right now. To give some background, Stephen graduated in 2002 from Campion Academy and then went on to Union College to get his nursing degree.
So, Stephen, we want to jump right in and talk to you about what you're doing right now. You were living in Colorado just a few weeks ago. What in the world are you doing in New York City right now, especially considering all we’re hearing about the COVID situation there?
Stephen (SS): (laughs) Well, I quit my job in Colorado and I came out here. I felt like this was an important thing to do: a lot of people are dying, a lot of people need some help in this situation, and I felt like I've got some experience that kind of gives me a unique perspective. So, I figured I could come out here and try to help out, slow down the outbreak.
DF: Can you show us the streets a little bit there behind you? While we were waiting earlier, you were showing us how empty it is.
SS: Yeah, that's New York City right now (pans camera). This is crazy. I've been here several times before and it's never like this, ever.
Reeder (DR): So, Stephen, as you are talking about New York City, can you tell us how restrictive it is there? Are the rules more strict than what we've got going on here in Colorado?
SS: Actually, I haven't been in Colorado since some of these restrictions (were put in place) so I'm not really sure how they compare. When I first got here, the restrictions were very tight, and people were observing them very closely. There was a whole atmosphere of fear and trepidation. I think as the numbers have come down people are starting to kind of relax a little bit, you know. It is kind of a concern, especially with the days warming up. There have been a lot more people trying to get outside and enjoy the sunshine after having been cooped up for so long. We have a few restaurants that are starting to open at least, with to-go meals and so forth. I feel like a lot of New Yorkers don't even cook at all, as a lot of these apartments I looked at barely have a kitchen so going out to eat is a New York City way of life for sure. A lot of places have tried to stay open with takeout or delivery.
I just want to take a moment really quick while I'm right here -- all of you guys have heard of The Vessel? It's one of the biggest tourist attractions here. It's that structure right behind me. This place is an absolute mob usually and there's no one really out here right now.
DR: So, Stephen, could you share with us maybe one event that you were involved in helping somebody deal with this crisis.
SS: Sure. When I got here, I saw a lot of people were just dying. If they're in the hospital, they're pretty sick. I had the opportunity to work with a lady on her last day in the hospital. I didn't get to be with her during the really tough times. But I was able to catch up on her case and talk to her about everything that happened. She had come in at 34 weeks pregnant, so a few weeks early. She was experiencing shortness of breath; she was young and healthy. Younger than me actually. She declined so quickly, they had to intubate her, put her on oxygen.
But right before they did that, they were able to deliver her child via cesarean section and then she was out for about two weeks in a medically induced coma. She woke up; she recovered. I got to work with her on the day that she had her breathing tube removed from her neck. I was with her when she got to see her baby for the first time. It was so touching to see her reunited with her other kids and her husband.
It got me to thinking about the possibility of those kids not seeing their mom ever again. It's just amazing seeing the medical staff working hard and trying to save lives. It's a wonderful thing to be a part of. I guess on that note, it's really difficult for me to see things online about whether or not this is real. It is definitely real here.
DF: Stephen, you had mentioned at the beginning that you had prior experiences. I know that you were involved in the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Tell us a little bit of it about that and maybe how that might have prepared you.
SS: For sure! Back in 2014, I guess as most of us might know, there was an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa: in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. It started off pretty small, but then it really blew up, and it had a very high mortality rate. It was scary, and it felt like it was about to get out of control. A lot of people were worried that it would go intercontinental. I'm a nurse, so I’m thinking to myself -- how can I help with the Ebola response? I sent my application to organizations like the International Medical Corps, Partners in Health, and Doctors Without Borders. A doctor from Partners in Health reached out to interview me. They asked about what experience I had. I told them that, going to Union College, I’d had the opportunity for several both long and short-term mission trips. I've been to Africa before, to Malawi and South Africa. I had been to Port-au-Prince, Haiti for the earthquake response. I also went to Nicaragua to work with the indigenous people in the jungles, doing some mobile clinics for areas that were very resource poor.
They said that was perfect because they needed someone who was able to deal with bucket showers and fix things with string and WD-40 and tape (he laughs).
So, I signed up for a six-week contract, and then I extended for another three weeks. I got to work with Ebola patients in the hot zone. I had to dress up in something like a moon suit; you know, head-to-toe plastic, rubber boots, mask and face shield. I signed up for another year, but then a couple of my colleagues contracted the virus, and they shut my clinic down. We were on the tail end of the virus at that point of the outbreak. They felt that, since our location was basically held together with twine and WD-40, there were other facilities better suited to keep open. I was out there for nine weeks with a very highly contagious illness, very deadly illness.
DF: That sounds incredible. So, some of your experiences in mission work while you were at Union College actually prepared you for that then.
SS: Oh absolutely! Union College gave me great experiences. When you're hiking five kilometers in the jungle with medications and assessments, the diagnostic equipment on your back, and you're making stretchers with sticks and a blanket -- you know you're prepared for some radical stuff here.
DR: Wow, so it sounds pretty stressful at times there, Stephen. We feel some stress here as well, but I don't think it's anything compared to the stress that you have with your job. Students, I want you to know that part of the stress for Mr. Scheffler right now is just being awake. He works nights, so we're in the middle of his night right now. We appreciate him messing up his sleep cycle to be with us. Stephen, could you share with us some of the things you do to deal with your stress that might be helpful to us right now?
SS: Absolutely! For me, knowing that you are never far away from God makes all the difference; that, in the middle of anything, you're just a moment from connecting to God. That knowledge is a huge benefit to me. I definitely feel like you can't replace that. I've also got loving family and people all over the world who are praying for me. Sometimes getting out and walking, trying to avoid the crowds, of course, really helps me a lot.
Of course, I have my favorite Bible verses. I think the last time I was with you guys at your chapel for assembly, I shared that verse in II Timothy: For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind. We don't have to be scared.
DF: Stephen, do you know how much longer you're going to be there?
SS: Yes, I signed up for an eight-week contract and I'm in the middle of my sixth week. I have two and a half weeks left if they don't extend it. With relaxing the restrictions, they’re telling us it's pretty scientifically certain that we're going to have some kind of an uptick in the virus. I'm hoping that they're not short-staffed if it strikes again.
DR: I'd like you to think back for a moment to your days here at Campion Academy. Can you pull anything out that Campion did for you to help you prepare for your career and for your ministry?
SS: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like being at Campion I was shown a lot of grace, a lot of love, a lot of kindness. A lot of times the situations we’re in, in life, can be difficult and you've got to give yourself a lot of grace and forgiveness. Sometimes I feel like I can't do enough when people are dying, no matter what I try. Sometimes you've got seven patients, they’re asking for things, and they think you don't care because you aren’t responding fast enough, but you're just doing everything you can. It feels like your best just isn’t enough. But it is enough, and you've got to be gentle with yourself.
People have been gentle with me, and I really appreciate that. The work-class-work balance we learned at Campion was really important to me. I didn't have it that easy financially and needed to work. Learning to juggle more than one thing at once and adapt was really important to me. It taught me that whatever
situation pops up, I can deal with it to the best of my ability.
DR: I’m glad to hear that! Thank you! I tell you, we appreciate that you are still connected with us through our Alumni Association. Mr. Scheffler is actually on our Alumni Board. We are proud to have you on the front lines helping with this and you'll be in our prayers as well. We want to give our students a chance to ask some questions, so we will be reading those to you as they pop-up on our live feed.
DF: Stephen, how can people like us be supportive of people like you who are right in the middle of all of this?
SS: Honestly, I think the big thing is to stay at home and avoid going out. The less people getting sick right now, the less strain there is on us at the hospital. That means a great deal to us right now. Sometimes people tell me “thank you for doing what you're doing” but then they say they’re still going to go out as usual because they’re bored, or it is too stressful to stay home. It’s a sacrifice, though, that we need you to make. You can't underestimate the impact of you all staying home, washing your hands, and just protecting the people who may have some weaker immune systems. Whether it’s the elderly or someone with cancer -- you never know who you're protecting by staying home.
DR: Stephen, how about an idea… If somebody that we know is in the hospital suffering, how could we best support them when we can't go to the hospital to be with them?
SS: There are some things that we've seen done creatively to let a person know they're not alone. At my hospital, we provide iPads so they can connect with their families. We get cards written from local schools and local individuals here that tell us thank you but also encourage our patients. It might not sound like much, but it makes a difference. Some local businesses will sponsor food – families will pitch in and sponsor with the local business.
DF: Stephen, Weston, one of our students, wants to know where you're living.
SS: I live in Manhattan. I am in an area called Hell's Kitchen, which is basically West Midtown. This structure here behind me called The Vessel is in Hudson Yards and my apartment is about five or six blocks north. That’s where I've been -- it's a neat little neighborhood.
DR: Cade, another student, wants to know, based on your attending Union College and pursuing nursing, what advice can you have for someone who wants to pursue that career.
SS: I would say, if that's something you're interested in, Union is absolutely amazing. I was on the cusp of failing a couple times, related to some major personal stresses in my life. I was dealing with anxiety and depression. And they helped me through it. It's a small school but it's a quality school. The professors took an interest in me personally; they even helped me purchase some medications when I wasn't able to afford it myself. That's the kind of quality you get, the kind of love that you find at Campion Academy and at Union College.
Specifically, within the nursing division, there are just fantastic human beings who actually care about you. My mom tried to become a nurse when I was young and there are some situations out there where they just want to fail you, it seemed like. She was never able to get that second chance. That could have easily been me. I could have easily walked in the same footsteps as my mom in that situation but, because I was at Union, I was able to succeed. Based on what I was going through, some people may have doubted my abilities. But some people did believe in me. Come to find out, I'm an okay nurse (grinning).
DR: You are a very courageous nurse. We are inspired by your courage! Your dedication is inspiring to us, Stephen. I'm going to close our meeting with prayer but, before I do, was there anything that you thought that you wanted to share with us that we haven't covered?
SS: You know, we think of New York City as a special place, and it is. But human beings are the same everywhere in that we all have fears, hopes, and dreams. We all need help sometimes. That's why I wanted to come here. If it was Denver, or Loveland, that was so impacted, I would hope that some New Yorkers would come help us. We’re way more impacted spiritually and emotionally, than we realize, by this suffering. But we're are all in this together. Together, we will triumph.
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Many of our students and their families have been impacted by COVID-19. To learn more about how we're supporting them, please visit campion.net/give.