top of page
  • Maya Juman

704 Bridges


Philadelphia from my desk. Photo credit: the author.

Working as a contact tracer during an incipient pandemic requires that you think and act as a therapist, a 911 operator, a social worker, and a detective, often simultaneously.  


Are you sick? Are you scared?


And, critically: Who have you been around? How can we reach them?


To call this job a departure from anything I had ever envisioned myself doing—with zero experience in public health, a freshly minted ecology degree, and a morbid Gen Z fear of talking to strangers on the phone—would be a vast understatement.


Nothing can prepare you for the bizarre, almost voyeuristic nature of this line of work, especially in a city as diverse as Philadelphia—frequently labelled the “poorest big city” in the United States. My calls constituted glimpses into hundreds of lives across every imaginable layer of the city: single mothers working in healthcare; investment bankers on Colorado ski trips; conspiracy theorists; weddings… so many weddings; NFL players; cops and prison guards; uncooperative frat bros; strippers; babies; social media influencers; nursing home residents; unhoused people; cancer patients; first-generation immigrants…


***


When I was twelve, my parents observed my reluctance to make phone calls and took it upon themselves to break me of this anxiety. They tasked me with systematically cancelling a stack of magazine subscriptions belonging to the previous tenant of our New York City apartment, rewarding me with a dollar for each successful call. During the first few calls, I followed a script I had meticulously written out on the notepad beside our landline phone. By the fourth call, I had it memorised.


In some ways, contact tracing was a higher-stakes, higher-variance version of this exercise. My first-ever call in June 2020 was with a woman who had just given birth to a daughter alone in her living room, before going to the hospital and incidentally testing positive on arrival. The script I had rehearsed immediately went out the window; a one-size-fits-all approach was simply not going to fly here. 


“Over and over again, the calls demanded that I tap into genuine empathy—not just to be a good human being (which, at the end of a long workday, often slid down the list of priorities), but also to do my job well. Trust is difficult to win from strangers, particularly those belonging to historically marginalised communities.”

My job necessitated near-constant invasions of privacy while acutely reminding me of my own youth and inexperience. Who was I to tell this new mother to wear a mask while breastfeeding the child she had single-handedly delivered into this world? Who was I to tell an opioid user not to leave isolation, even as he was consumed by withdrawal symptoms? Or to insist that an Uber driver stay home, even as she worried aloud that a lack of income would lead, once again, to living on the streets?


***


In July, I plastered my bedroom desk with yellow Post-Its: reminders of symptoms that warranted hospitalisation, talking points for salvaging tense situations, tricks for sweet-talking people into sharing their friends’ numbers with me. After the first month, all of it lived in my brain forever.


“Hi, this is Maya calling from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. May I please speak 


with___?... How are you today?... I’m calling about a recent test result, but first I just need to confirm 


your date of birth. I have here that you were born in 19__. Could you please confirm the day and month 


for me?... Excellent, thank you. And I have your address as ___th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19_.  Is that 


correct?... Thank you for confirming that for me. So I’m calling today about the results of a COVID-19 test you 


took on ___. Are you aware of the results of the test?... Yes, I was sorry to hear that.  How are you feeling today?


... OK, I’m glad to hear that. Well, I’m calling just to check in on how you’re doing, ask you a few questions, 


and see if there’s anything we can do to support you, OK? Do you have a few minutes to chat right now?”



My desk. Photo credit: the author.

***


By September, I was adept at exploiting even minute points of connection to build rapport with my cases. After a lengthy discussion of the most recent Harvard-Yale football game, a Harvard alumnus rewarded me with a contact tracer’s bumper crop: the names and numbers of 13 precious close contacts. A hospitalised case opened up after I shared that I, too, once ended up in the ER with a kidney stone, and yes, it hurt like hell.


I was frequently amazed by the ways in which discussing COVID seemed to nudge people to share unexpected personal details, ranging from banal to absurd. One case breathlessly described, in detail, the recent colour of her poop (black). Another attributed her shortness of breath while lying down to the size of her breasts (“huge”). Other revelations were deeper, occasionally more reluctant. I spent ten minutes walking a case through recording my work number on his iPhone. He had reentered the world earlier that week following 26 years of incarceration for first-degree murder, and he was still learning how to use a smartphone. A prison guard had shouted in his face: “if you die, you die.”


***


“It’s easy to tell your life story to the passenger seated next to you on a flight—someone you’ll never see again. The placeless, faceless void of my calls manifested this phenomenon to an extreme degree. Perhaps this was an artefact of the relative anonymity of these calls, of how isolated we all were.”

“Unprecedented” was a word that got thrown around a lot in those days, and though it was a cliché that I grew to hate, it captured something true. None of us had any idea what was going on—we were grasping at anything, desperate for something to hold onto. My calls were portraits of this unflagging human need for connection.


I had lured these people into a confessional, where they told me about their bad behaviour—COVID-related and otherwise—and I was their priest, with the added bonus of having to clean up messes. I called airlines, sifted through guest lists and seating charts, pleaded with principals and nursing home managers. As my cases let me into their lives, they shared secrets: heartbreak, loss, regret. I was dragged into personal drama, navigating fractures between exes, siblings fighting over family decisions. (“My baby mama is a fucking bitch,” one guy said. “Try to talk some sense into her, will ya?”). As scattered as I was, part of me felt deeply honoured to be trusted with details of these messy, human lives.


In November, I was assigned a case who worked as a cook at Geno’s Steaks: “Home of the Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia”.


“Who have you been around since Friday?” I asked.


“Just my girlfriend.”


“Is there a number I could reach her at, please?”


“She already knows. I can’t give you that.”


“Are you sure? We’d really like to check in with her to see if she needs anything.”


“No. You can’t be calling her house.”


“Why’s that?”


“She lives with her fiancé.”


“Oh.”


***


This intimacy permeated every conversation, even the ones culminating in one-way screaming matches. There you are, calling this person at a moment when things are hanging in the balance—you’re serving yourself up on a platter, prodding them for their birthdate and their friends’ names. In unleashing their frustration on you, they are opening up in a way that they probably don’t with most people—not the doctor who is trying to save their intubated parent’s life, not their children, not the colleague who infected them in the first place. A mother threatens to get her lawyer on the line when you call about her teenage son, who you had no idea was in the ICU after a car crash. Here are glimpses into people’s worst moments, their waking nightmares. This, in a sense, is a remarkable privilege, though it took me years to come to view it in this way. In the moment—if you aren’t careful—it slowly erodes you.


On a Friday afternoon, a case tells you that her doctor is a liar. The hospital is corrupt. They’re keeping her there when she doesn’t need to be there. Someone is behind this.


“I’ll make a note of that and try to escalate your concerns–”


“TRY TO FIGURE OUT MY WHOLE FUCKING LIFE.” Click.


Then: the maddening dial tone. You scream into the void, cry for twenty seconds, splash your face with water, pull it together. And then type in the next number.


***


Meanwhile, in the real world—whatever that was, anyway—I had cultivated a dysfunctional cycle of waking up at 8:58 am in the winter, dragging my laptop into bed, and blearily scanning the names of people I needed to call that day. Dialling began to feel like spinning a high-anxiety Wheel of Fortune. Was I going to get a sociopath this time? A superspreader wedding? A Secret Mystery Option™ I had yet to encounter? In the early afternoon I would crawl downstairs and ingest some form of nutrition or caffeine, then watch the sun go down as I made more calls and put out more fires. It took me most of the evening to wrap up case notes, and most of the night to recover from the day—a process which involved, on good days, a general sensation of numbness, and on bad ones a fair amount of self-medicating and sobbing into the shower drain.


My colleague once called the number listed for a case and reached a receptionist at the Gift of Life Donor Program. Her case had died of a gunshot wound the night before, and his organs had tested positive.


***


Despite the unique challenges of my job, I was oddly fond of my cases and surprised at how connected I felt to them—even the ones who reduced me to silent tears. They had been assigned to me, and for two weeks, they were my responsibility and mine alone. This gave me some semblance of a purpose as the days, weeks, and seasons limped onward in a timeless blur.


One of my first assignments was to monitor a U.S. Navy officer who was quarantined in a hotel room as soon as his COVID-ridden ship docked in Philadelphia. I called him every day, dutifully running through my symptom list each time, as we’d been instructed in onboarding training.


“Have you had any new symptoms since yesterday?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Fever?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Cough?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Sore throat?”

“No, ma’am.”


And so on. We performed this ritual for fourteen days, discussing little else outside of my inane, monotonous questionnaire. On our penultimate call he wanted to know if he’d be clear to leave the following day, and I said yes. He asked me exactly what time his quarantine would end.


This I did not know. 


“Uh, noon, I guess?” The confidence in my voice wavered quickly in those early days—I’d revert to being a 21-year-old in her first job out of college, not the public health authority I’d been pretending to be. 


I called him the next day for our last check-in. He told me he was sitting on the floor of his hotel room next to his fully packed bag, staring at the door. I pictured him leaning back against the bed frame, hands on his knees, mere minutes away from freedom—though I had no idea what this man looked like, and I would never know. “Well, this is it, I guess,” I said awkwardly, faced with hanging silence reminiscent of the end of a date. 


“I’ll miss the calls,” he offered. “They made the day somethin’ different. I looked forward to hearin’ from ya.”


***


I definitely thought about my cases more than they ever thought about me. 


“On their end, I was a government robot who asked them a list of questions for ten minutes. But to me, my cases were windows into a world I had shut myself away from since March. I lived vicariously through them, at first Googling only to find their email addresses when they didn’t pick up, but eventually allowing myself to slip down Internet rabbit holes as I tried to visualise their lives.” 

I scrolled through their public Instagrams and perused their tacky wedding websites late at night in a sort of horrified trance. After I talked to three teenagers who played in a band in their parents’ garages, I added their (surprisingly catchy) music to my Spotify library. To do my job well, I needed to know these beautiful, imperfect people—what made them tick, what psychological strategies they were most likely to respond to. But some part of me also wanted to know them. Sometimes they appeared in my dreams.


In February, I spoke with a tattoo artist who told me about her whole life—some whirlwind fling she was wrapped up in. She’d fallen in love with an older guy, but he had a kid, and was she really ready for that responsibility? We talked—she talked—for so long that I missed a meeting. Months later I thought about appearing at her studio and having her ink something on my body: a reminder of that insane job, that insane year. But something about the prospect of seeing her—of meeting a case in person—felt wrong, like it would break an intangible spell.


***


By April, the cherry blossoms in Fairmount Park were blooming and my job description was changing. I was tasked with calling high-risk people on the vaccine waitlist and offering them an appointment. In stark contrast with my earlier calls, I felt like Santa Claus. People cried happy tears and showered praise on me and my team. “Thank you God for Maya,” said a senior who I scheduled for a Pfizer shot. “We need more women like you, on the grind.”


But I was done, and I knew it. I couldn’t do it anymore. Contact tracing had fully emptied my emotional reserves, and I wasn’t cut out for this work forever—very few people are. The human body can only absorb so much secondary trauma. I stayed with the health department for another eight months: managing a team, testing software updates, and wrangling data that our contact tracers squeezed out of the public. But my calls to cases dwindled over the following months to only a couple a week, until I finally stopped in the winter. My last call was with a member of my own team, who agreed to be interviewed by someone she knew. Unsurprisingly, she was the most cooperative and efficient case I’d ever had. 


***


704.


That’s how many temporary bridges I built over the course of a year.


I’ll never know whether the tattoo artist decided to lean into the stepmom role, or whether that teenager survived getting hit by a car. I’ll never know if the cheesesteak chef’s girlfriend’s fiancé caught her cheating on him. I’ll never know which of my cases lived and which ones died.


What does it mean to form hundreds of these tiny connections, which I will carry around with me forever, like an invisible spider web?


There is something both magical and sad about these fleeting interactions, each of which has left an indelible mark on me. I used to wonder all the time whether the perceived intimacy in our calls was genuine. The stories, the confessions, the trust. Maybe it was all just a fever dream, a figment of the crisis we had been sucked into. 


I don’t have answers, and I probably never will. But now I ask a new question: does it really matter that the bridge winks out of existence when the call ends? 


“For a moment, you’ve spun an improbable thread with a complete stranger—your lives swing into the same orbit for just a few minutes before you hang up, never to intersect again. Yet while the connection is live, even if briefly, it feels real. And isn’t that the greatest human gift?”

***


I once called a woman whose entire family was dead or hospitalised with pneumonia. She was weeping, afraid of dying. What can one say to a stranger, beyond offering flimsy platitudes? All the yellow Post-Its in the world don’t add up to anything resembling an adequate response.


So I mostly listened—to her, and to her pet guinea pigs squeaking in the background as she fed them. We spoke for hours. Before we hung up, I ran through the usual checklist of offering to mail free food, medicine, masks. She declined it all. I asked her if that was everything, then. 


“Wait,” she told me. “I love you.”



Note: All stories in this essay are based on real conversations. However, any personal identifying information has been omitted or changed to protect individuals' privacy, in accordance with healthcare laws. 


The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Editorial Board, the Scholars’ Council, the Gates Cambridge Trust or the University of Cambridge.



 

Maya Juman ['22] is a PhD student researching bat viruses at the Department of Veterinary Medicine. She was Editor-in-Chief of The Scholar, 2023 Edition.



Comments


bottom of page