What experiencing COVID-19 is like as a student-athlete, a volunteer EMT and a patient

Photo Courtesy of Harris Helberg

As collegiate athletics programs begin welcoming their student-athletes back into the locker room for the first time since mid-March due to COVID-19, a sort of melancholy feeling is setting in. But playing means nothing unless the players can stay healthy.

And nobody knows this more than Queens University of Charlotte’s Harris Helberg. 

He joined the 460,000 student-athletes whose season’s shut down after the NCAA announced the cancellation of all spring and remaining winter sports and the closure of all on-campus facilities. 

A student, an athlete, a volunteer emergency medical technician, a five-time Southern Atlantic Conference champion, a future doctor — the list of titles goes on for the Marietta native.

In May, he added one that nobody hopes they ever do: The 21-year old was diagnosed with COVID-19.

A rising senior, Helberg suffered multiple injuries in his first three years. The 2019-20 season could have seen the Royals cap off an incredible six-peat; instead, an abrupt end shattered their hopes.

“It’s really tough when you work all season to get to nationals or a high level in conference, and you’re not able to compete and showcase what you have and how hard you worked,” Helberg said.

Beyond the track, he is an emergency medical technician who was volunteering in Henderson, North Carolina. His shifts were eight hours a day, six days a week in a facility treating the novel coronavirus. The exercise science major had just finished his final exams.

“People die, that is also the reality, but it is never easy. Death is part of the job, and it’s also not the fun part of the job,” Helberg said. “These people have families, these people have friends, these people are very nice and loving people.”

While being around those who came out on both sides of the battle against COVID-19, Helberg also felt the need to take care of himself. He would shower immediately after coming home from work and wore an N95 mask and a face shield at work at all times.

For Helberg, there was never a sense of regret. Rather, the experience with the virus taught him to be more empathetic. He built relationships with many of his patients, some of which he interacted within their final hours of life.

Being around the patients made Helberg question his own health. After volunteering at his facility for a few weeks, he became one of the 2.3 million people to hear the bad news.

“I took a test just for precautionary measures … and then four days later, I get a call, ‘Hey, you tested positive,’ and I was kind of in shock for a second. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’” Helberg said.

He told his teammates, who were “surprised, supportive and [checked in]” with him, about his diagnosis. Helberg, their teammate from Atlanta, had become the first person they knew with the disease.

Among those who supported him most were his coach, Jim Vahrenkamp. While every conversation Helberg had those days seemed to be about the virus, Vahrenkamp gave him some needed relief and conversation on anything other than the topic at hand. 

Unable to do much, Helberg found himself in a state of uncertainty and discombobulation after going back home to Atlanta. He recently finished a 26-day-long quarantine after receiving three positive tests for the virus. 

“It’s tough because you want to embrace your family,” he said. “Ultimately, I came to terms with it cause that’s what was keeping them safe, and I would feel very guilty if I were to get them sick.”

At his home, every precaution possible was taken to prevent his family from getting sick. For 26 days, they blocked vents to prevent air from coming out of the basement. Meals were left by his parents in the backyard on a table, which Helberg did not retrieve until the family member went back inside. 

College students often hope to come home to warm embraces and family dinners, but in 2020 that is not always the case. 

For cardio training, he waited until 1:30 a.m. before going on his runs, ensuring that his chances of human interaction were at a minimum.

On June 10, Helberg finally felt relief with his family after receiving his first negative test. Now asymptomatic, they are trying to catch up on the time they lost. He keeps in touch with his teammates, none of whom have tested positive for the coronavirus.

After his experience both as a patient and a member of the front line dealing with the virus, Helberg makes sure his teammates are educated on how to keep themselves and others safe.

“I’ve always encouraged them to social distance and wear their masks,” he said. “We’re going to have to be really careful when the season starts and school starts back up.”

He expects meets to happen without fans cheering, groups to be small, among other protocols and cannot wait to pole vault again or high-jump when he gets back on campus.

“I miss that,” he said. “I feel like my college experience has currently revolved around being an athlete and school, so those two things are extremely important to me, and I appreciate them more now. So, hopefully, I can reconnect with some of my local teammates and get started.”