How One Brown Undergrad Became a Frontline Health Worker

This is the second in our ongoing series of conversations with Brown students about life during the pandemic. On this episode: Aaron Gruen ‘22 is a double concentrator in chemistry and music, and he was preparing for the most important cello recital of his life when Brown’s campus closed in March. He flew back home to Germany, and finished his classes remotely. Between classes, he found a new extracurricular -- serving as a frontline healthcare worker.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. So here's a story you haven't heard. Aaron Gruen is a rising junior at Brown. He's a double concentrator in music and chemistry. And this past March, he was getting ready for the most important recital of his college career. His dad was flying in from Germany to see it.

The next part of the story you can probably guess. The pandemic spread through the US, and instead of his dad coming to Providence, Aaron had to scramble to find a flight back to Germany. He finished out the semester remotely. But Aaron didn't want to just sit at home waiting for things to get better. So once he was back in Munich, he reached out to a local hospital to see if there were ways to volunteer.

AARON GRUEN: The person on the phone was a doctor. But he basically asked me, can you come in this weekend?


AARON GRUEN: On that first day, they were already showing me how to change IVs, taking blood gas samples. I had to help clean the patients, do their sheets. Yeah, they really threw me in the deep end.

SARAH BALDWIN: I talked with Aaron from his home in Germany. Before discussing his current vocation, I asked him what it felt like back in March to buy a one-way ticket from Providence to Munich while news of the pandemic seemed to be getting worse by the hour. Here's Aaron.

AARON GRUEN: I had no idea what was going to happen in the future, if I could even ever come back to Brown. I was scrambling to find a flight back. It was hard to do. The only connection I could find was via Canada and the borders were closing rapidly, so I was worried for several days straight about even making it back home to Germany.

SARAH BALDWIN: But you did. You were able to find a flight. And so what was it like getting on that plane? Did you have your cello with you?

AARON GRUEN: Unfortunately, I did not, because those last-minute flights were rather expensive and I thought, OK, I'm just going to take the essentials that I can at this point, and I can rent one, which I'm doing now in Munich. And that flight-- since we didn't know anything about the virus, or very little about the virus at that point, compared to what we know now, I was very concerned. I got my hands on one single mask, which I wore for the duration of the flight. It was very empty.

SARAH BALDWIN: That must have felt eerie.

AARON GRUEN: It was strange, but my mind was still racing with the adrenaline from the end of semester.

SARAH BALDWIN: Mhm. What did you do when you got home?

AARON GRUEN: I slept for about a day after all of that excitement, and those first couple of weeks before online classes resumed are now kind of blurry, to be honest. But I was doing some work for classes, chatting with friends. It was all kind of a mess. I did some cooking, watched some movies with my dad and my brother.

And while I was waiting for classes to restart, I was just seeing the numbers go up and up. Actually, at that point, it was much more Germany than in the US. And I sat there thinking, staying at home really all I can do? Isn't there something else?

SARAH BALDWIN: And so what did you come up with?

AARON GRUEN: I looked online, basically searching for some volunteer work in my area, and I came up with things like this site where you can sign up to buy groceries for some vulnerable population.

And then there was another one where I put my name down to volunteer at a hospital. And I was pretty sure I wasn't going to hear back from that one, because obviously, there was some, I guess, legal stuff. If outside people come and work in the hospital and get corona, that could quickly turn into a worse situation. But actually, a couple days later, I did hear back from that organization.

SARAH BALDWIN: You were surprised.

AARON GRUEN: I was a bit surprised, more so because the person on the phone was a doctor, Dr. Fish, who runs an intensive care unit at a hospital in Munich.

SARAH BALDWIN: And why was he calling you?

AARON GRUEN: Well, he basically asked me two questions. First one was whether I've ever worked in an intensive care unit before.

SARAH BALDWIN: And what did you say?

AARON GRUEN: I said, no. And the second question was, are you scared of working on an intensive care unit? And I also said, no, and he said, all right. Well, great. Can you come in this weekend?

SARAH BALDWIN: So what was your first day? What did they have you do? What was it like walking into the ICU?

AARON GRUEN: Well, I guess one of the shocking things for me is that none of the patients there really look like people anymore. They're just attached to so many tubes and cables they don't really look like humans.

SARAH BALDWIN: Were they all COVID-19 patients?

AARON GRUEN: So they were not. This ward was-- well, in normal times, a ward for patients who come out of long operations, and need extra medical attention, and it's physiology-related. But they also take any patients who are in a quite bad condition, which is something I figured out after a few months there. It's basically a ward for the worst cases in Munich. Let's put it that way.

SARAH BALDWIN: Wow. And so they needed volunteers because the hospital staff was so pulled into the COVID sorrel?

AARON GRUEN: So this group of four Munich hospitals actually had a whole pandemic reorganization, and they were, at that point, very worried about getting a second wave. And so on this group were employed a lot of medical and premed students, anyone they could get their hands on, essentially, to help out with the basic tasks in the hospitals in Munich, in case they really do face a shortage of medical staff, because if they're all getting sick, they need somebody there to take care of the patients.

And this building in which I was, they tried to keep it as free of COVID as possible, but there were patients who came from the outside with some other condition and did test positive.

SARAH BALDWIN: Oh. And then were they sent away?

AARON GRUEN: Yeah, they were sent away as soon as possible.

SARAH BALDWIN: And do you consider yourself premed?

AARON GRUEN: I do consider myself premed in the American system of colleges, but also I guess in the German system, too, because there, students go to med school right after graduating from high school. But the first two years of their med school experience is basically similar to the premed experience in the US. You're not working in hospitals or doing much hands-on stuff with patients. It's very classroom-centered.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, what did they have you do that first day and in the time since?

AARON GRUEN: So on that first day, they were already showing me how to change IVs, taking blood gas samples, helping with basic procedures, where I would have to essentially hold the patient in certain ways so that the doctors and nurses could easily get to them. I had to help clean the patients, do their sheets. So that was on the first day. I guess, yeah, they really threw me in the deep end.

SARAH BALDWIN: It sounds like it. That's amazing. Well, what was going through your mind? Were you thinking, I don't know how to do this, or here, let's go. I'm going to learn?

AARON GRUEN: I was very much thinking the latter. I took a notebook with me, which I expected I'd need for something, and I was writing down all the terms that I didn't know so that the next time I came in, when they mentioned that term, I would know what they're talking about. And I had so much adrenaline going at that point that I was just going along with it and closely observing what the nurses and doctors were doing.

SARAH BALDWIN: Do you remember what it felt like when you came home after that first day? Like, what was your body feeling? What was in your mind?

AARON GRUEN: I was really exhausted. It was basically, what, 8 and 1/2 hours of nonstop standing, apart from a small lunch break, and that gets hard on my whole body. That's hard on my feet and legs, especially. Yeah, I was just exhausted after that first day, but my body kind of adjusts. And moving patients around, patients that basically can't do anything themselves, that are often in a comatose state, is physically exhausting.

SARAH BALDWIN: I wonder-- you've been working now in the ICU for several months. Is it all a blur, or is there an experience in particular that you'll never forget?

AARON GRUEN: A lot of the work does turn into a blur, but there were a few moments that definitely stand out. One that immediately comes to mind is on the second day that I was there, a nurse pulled me aside to one of the beds and she said, all right. We're going to be taking this patient off life support now. And if you want to be here and hold his hand, that would be great, because I have to do something else.

And so I was standing there and holding his hand while he was literally taking his last breaths. And one of the most sad things about this whole coronavirus pandemic was that, or still is, that people can't come, and family, friends cannot come and visit their family members on the ICU.

SARAH BALDWIN: Hm. That's important work, holding a dying person's hand.

AARON GRUEN: I mean, yeah. You kind of hear the story, someone talking about it, but then when you're actually doing it, it kind of makes your heart jump for a second. Like, OK. This person has lived for, whatever, 80 years on this planet. I'm the one who's holding his hand.

SARAH BALDWIN: Mhm. That must have been a profound experience. Did that happen to you many times after that?

AARON GRUEN: It has happened several times after that. The first time was definitely the most shocking, but after that, I hate to say that it's part of the life on an ICU, so to speak, and it's inevitable on an ICU like this.

SARAH BALDWIN: Was there anything that surprised you? Was there anything that was just not what you had predicted?

AARON GRUEN: I think the level of confidence in the staff at the hospital that we could do this, that we can somehow overcome these hard times was actually quite relieving. After hearing all of the news all the time, coming to the hospital and hearing this from these-- I guess you could call them motivational speeches by the team leaders.

The head doctor and the head nurse on the ward gave these speeches, talks to the team, and there was a sense of optimism in it that we can do this, but it's going to be hard.

SARAH BALDWIN: Wow. That's amazing. I'm glad you were in that kind of environment.

AARON GRUEN: It was very supportive.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I wonder. Has it changed how you feel about being a doctor? Has it made you want to be one even more or a little bit less?

AARON GRUEN: I can definitely see myself working in that profession in the future. Of course, you learn the stuff in school. I'm taking chemistry and the premed requirements. But that day-to-day work, it's much more human than just learning the physiology of a person or how the chemical reactions in the body work. It's, what I've observed, a lot of a trial-and-error job.

SARAH BALDWIN: What do you mean by that? Can you say more?

AARON GRUEN: Sometimes, at least on this ward, they're not really sure what they can do. They're sometimes not sure what exactly is going wrong and they just have to try different combinations of drugs. Of course, all in form, and they're excellent professionals in this field. But even when they come together, there are often five doctors on this ward and they often don't know what to do.

And I spoke with nurses and doctors alike about the COVID situation, as well, and nobody knew what was really going on, what was happening, and what we could expect. So despite having years and years of training, sometimes, these very well-educated professionals don't even know.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, speaking of COVID, I wonder what you've observed in terms of the health care system in Germany and the public health response as compared to those in the United States.

AARON GRUEN: One thing that surprised me at the beginning was, even while I was reading on the news that in the US, they had a large shortage of masks and PPE, and that health care professionals were having to bring their own PPE from home or reuse it, the hospital and the whole hospital system in Munich had enough PPE every day for everyone.

They had enough N95 respirators or the equivalent for one person to use for each day that they came. And they were regulated. They were keeping them locked up in a cupboard, and we had to fill out a form every time we took one. They were, I guess, a valuable commodity at the time. And there was never a shortage of them. The head of the hospital bought PPE at any price possible, and I was amazed how well-supplied and stocked the hospital was.

Of course, the country did go on a lockdown, just like the US did, and I think Germans mostly followed it. Of course, there were incidents that they didn't. But somehow, it's gotten better now and things are open. And I even have done a little bit of traveling, which has been nice getting out of Munich for a few days.

SARAH BALDWIN: And are people wearing masks?

AARON GRUEN: People are required to wear masks in all indoor public places-- shops, restaurants, and anything of the sort, [INAUDIBLE], as well. But outside, people are not wearing masks.

SARAH BALDWIN: And how does that feel? Does it feel like life before the pandemic, or will things never quite be the same?

AARON GRUEN: At this point, the mask just seems like it's the normal thing to do. You grab the car keys, you grab your phone, you grab your wallet, and the mask. And life is, for the most part, back to normal when you go out and you're seeing people eating at restaurants, and seeing people sit in beer gardens drinking beer, and eating food outdoors and indoors alike, people are traveling, businesses are back in operation.

Of course, there are restrictions, and you have to keep a safe distance, which most people do follow, most restaurants do follow. But it feels, I guess, as normal as we can get in the situation.

SARAH BALDWIN: And just again, what is the view from Germany when you look at news coming from the United States? What are people seeing?

AARON GRUEN: They are worried. They're seeing that cases in the US are continuously rising, and that places are opening up, and people are not even socially distancing. And that's seriously concerning because I don't know how the virus is supposed to be stopped if things are opening up and returning back to normal when we're seeing such a high number of cases.

SARAH BALDWIN: I hope this isn't a difficult question. What are you thinking about for the fall? Are you planning to come back to Brown to campus?

AARON GRUEN: At this point, I have decided to study away in Germany, so not to transfer, but to take a semester or year off from Brown and continue studying here in Germany.

SARAH BALDWIN: So will you continue with music and chemistry?

AARON GRUEN: Yes, to the best of my ability, at least. I would study chemistry formally, for which I could get credit. And since I just found this out yesterday, I'm still working on the music part, but I know there will be opportunities. And certainly, I'm going to be performing and playing in different ensembles that I can find around. In fact, I'm planning on studying in Berlin, so I'll see what I can find there, and hopefully, take lessons with a teacher at a conservatory.

SARAH BALDWIN: I'm worrying about your cello. Where is it?

AARON GRUEN: It's currently in a professor's office at Brown who's very kindly agreed to take care of it. I worry about it, too. I have a decent instrument here, but it's not the same as my own cello. And I don't know when I'll get back to it. I don't know if I can come in and visit Brown at some point. According to the guidelines, it's not possible right now, and I wouldn't want to. But I don't know if it'll be in half a year, even in under a year when I can come back.

SARAH BALDWIN: It must be such a difficult separation-- you know, you from your instrument.

AARON GRUEN: It is, and also separated from my friends who are all over the place and are equally as confused. And even going back to Brown, I wouldn't really be able to see my friends as much as I would like to.

SARAH BALDWIN: And how are you staying connected? What is the platform that you and your friends are using?

AARON GRUEN: Well, obviously, we chat a lot on Whatsapp, Messenger, iMessage, and I try and Zoom with them regularly or call them. My quintet, for example, we try and have a Zoom call every two weeks or so. And it's been fun.

SARAH BALDWIN: A Zoom call to practice together or just to talk?

AARON GRUEN: I Zoom call just to talk. Practicing over Zoom is too difficult because of the time delay.

SARAH BALDWIN: And last question, I promise, and then I'll let you go back to your evening. You're 20-something and this is a time in your life that was leading up to you being launched into your future. How are you thinking about your future now?

AARON GRUEN: Well, for some time, I was considering transferring from Brown to just study medicine in Germany because I didn't know what the future would hold in the US, whether it might be two years, three years before the situation improves. Nobody seems to really know. And I am still somewhat considering that, but I love Brown too much to just transfer to a different institution.

So I want to complete my time at Brown. And after that, I think I do want to go into the medical field, whether it is actively as a doctor working in a place like an ICU or doing research. But to prepare for a pandemic like this in the future, there are a lot of people needed in that industry, and it's an industry that's definitely not ever going to run short of demand. Brown prepared me for a lot, but it certainly didn't prepare me to be thrown cold turkey into the medical profession.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, it sounds like you're swimming in the deep end. Good for you.


Well, Aaron, I wish you every good thing and I have every confidence that your future is bright, no matter how murky it looks right now because you're just terrific. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

AARON GRUEN: Thank you, Sarah. I hope that we can meet in person.

SARAH BALDWIN: I hope so, too. I live 10 minutes from campus, and I'll be really happy when you can come back.

AARON GRUEN: I will certainly be, too.

SARAH BALDWIN: OK. You take care and stay safe.

AARON GRUEN: Thank you.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Jackson Cantrell. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us.

For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening, and tune in in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.

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Dan Richards

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