College and the Coronavirus: Georgia professor balances cancer treatment while teaching online

Augusta University professor Debbie van Tuyll speaks with her students while teaching a communication law and ethics class virtually from her screened in back porch at her residence in Martinez, Georgia Tuesday, September 15, 2020. Van Tuyll is a professor who teaches communications at Augusta University. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2020. She is currently receiving chemotherapy treatments while continuing to virtually teach at the university. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following the lives of Debbie van Tuyll and a few students at various colleges and universities in Georgia throughout the first full academic year since the coronavirus pandemic began. We will publish periodic reports about them. This is the first of these articles.

Debbie van Tuyll’s sister-in-law and friend’s daughter were diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, so when her doctor said in May they needed to do a biopsy after her mammogram, she anticipated a similar diagnosis.

“Oh, these things happen in threes. I just bet I’m going to get some bad news out of this one,” she thought.

The doctors found a spot the size of what van Tuyll described as a green pea that was cancerous. She has Stage 2 breast cancer, but describes it as Stage 1.75 because of the size of the spot.

Van Tuyll, 64, began chemotherapy in July. A month later, amid the treatment, she returned to work. Van Tuyll, a communications professor at Augusta University for nearly 30 years, said she felt a duty to continue teaching because her department is shorthanded.

Georgia’s public colleges and universities are offering courses in different ways this semester. Most are being done in a hybrid fashion, a mix of in person and online. Augusta University approved her request to teach from home. The American Cancer Society recommends people who work during cancer treatment do so at their own pace. Working at home through the pandemic has strengthened the bonds of family members with a loved one undergoing cancer treatment, the group says.

Breast cancer. COVID-19. Neither can slow van Tuyll, say those who know her. Her voice sounds wearier, colleagues and students say, but her energy level hasn’t changed. She remains a hard worker who has completed some tasks even faster than before.

Debbie van Tuyll is a communications professor at Augusta University. She pushed for the University System of Georgia to require Augusta University and its 25 other institutions to make students and faculty wear face masks or coverings in classrooms when the fall semester began in early August. CONTRIBUTED

“My first thought was I’d take six months or a year off if I was her. I’d like to take a sabbatical," said her department chair, David Bulla. “But that’s not Debbie van Tuyll. She has boundless energy.”

Teaching has been therapeutic. One student who is a cancer survivor shared his experience with her. So too have other faculty members and friends. Some students have sent her supportive messages.

Facts and faith guide van Tuyll’s approach to her condition. She’s done her research. She said she has a 99% survival rate after five years and a 90% survival rate after 20 years. A Presbyterian who is active in her church, van Tuyll believes cancer is part of God’s plan for her life.

“It’s just another experience that the good Lord has laid out for me,” she said one recent morning.

Van Tuyll was supposed to get her mammogram in January, but she got sidetracked with work and forgot. Then came the pandemic. She believes the cancer would not have been diagnosed if the mammogram had been done when initially scheduled. The spot would not have been large enough to be detected in January, van Tuyll and her husband say.

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So far, she said, the treatment is going well. She has her students do independent study during weeks she has chemotherapy because her anti-nausea medicine makes her lightheaded.

“I’m feeling better than I thought I was going to,” she said.

Her husband, Hubert, teaches history at the university. They worried he could be exposed to COVID-19 and share the disease with her if he taught on campus. She voiced her concerns in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report in late June, a few weeks before University System of Georgia officials required students and faculty wear face coverings in classrooms and other locations on its campuses.

09/15/2020 - Augusta, Georgia - Prof. Hubert van Tuyll teaches U.S. History to a classroom of students on Augusta UniversityÕs Summerville campus in Augusta, Tuesday, September 15, 2020. Van TuyllÕs wife, Debbie, is also a professor at the university but only teaches virtually due to a medical condition. Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer May 2020. Due to the risk of possibly exposing himself and his wife to COVID-19, Hubert has requested to teach remotely. He currently teaches ever other week at the campus. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Hubert thought about applying to teach remotely, but was repeatedly told the request would be denied unless he had a specific medical condition. He’s teaching hybrid courses, one week he’s on campus and the following week he works from home.

Many educators believe Georgia’s public college systems should approve any requests to teach remotely without the need for any documentation amid the pandemic since COVID-19 has no known cure. The University System, which oversees operations at Augusta University and Georgia’s other 25 colleges and universities, allow faculty to teach remotely, but may require documentation before approval.

Hubert wears a face shield and a mask when he’s teaching on campus. He changes clothes when he comes home and thoroughly washes his hands. A colleague who is an epidemiologist has talked with them about COVID-19, easing some apprehension.

“We’ve made peace with it,” van Tuyll said of her husband having to go to the campus.

The couple lives in a ranch-style home in a tree-lined subdivision in Martinez, about a 15-minute drive from the Summerville campus. Their home has the trappings of a comfortable life. A few dozen vinyl records sit in a bookshelf. Two friendly dogs — Georgia and Tomi — clamor for attention. The couple has been married 38 years. Their daughter is married and lives in Colorado.

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Van Tuyll teaches three classes Tuesday and Thursday mornings from her study, a room that she frequently says is messier than her husband’s study. Her dogs are the main culprits, leaving their toys on the floor. An iMac computer she used to write her doctorate dissertation sits on the desk, next to her laptop computer.

Also on the table are three keychains with three of her heroes: Thomas Jefferson, Rosie the Riveter and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She likes the ideals they represent. Van Tuyll was rooting for Ginsburg, who died Friday from pancreatic cancer.

Van Tuyll said she had moments of panic in the early days of her diagnosis. Her mother died from breast cancer at the age of 68.

“But, when the doctors started using the word cure, I really committed myself to enduring whatever they threw at me to get to that end point,” she said.

Van Tuyll teaches media law, in depth reporting and capstones. She has written several books exploring the history of journalism. Her latest work is scheduled to be published later this year on the history of the Irish-American press through most of the 19th century. Van Tuyll spent most of her childhood in Birmingham and worked as a reporter before going into academia. She remembers covering what she recalls was Alabama’s last tar and feathering in 1982.

09/15/2020 - Augusta, Georgia - A student walks toward the Allgood Hall building at the Augusta University Summerville location in Augusta, Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Her Augusta University profile picture shows a woman with straight, blond hair that flows past her shoulders, and bangs to her eyebrows and a toothy smile. Chemotherapy has thinned her hair now, but the smile emerges as she tells self-effacing jokes. She wore a gray scarf over her hair as she sat on her covered patio on a recent morning, her mellow voice occasionally interrupted by the sound of nuts hitting the roof or Tomi hoping to play with her. Van Tuyll buys her scarves from Amazon, which she says often dominate conversations with her sister-in-law.

“We talk about fashion more than anything else,” said van Tuyll.

Van Tuyll briefly thought about not teaching. Her department, though, was short some instructors before the pandemic. She didn’t want to abandon the department and its chair, Bulla. They go back 20 years. She helped recruit him to the university.

“It was a decision based on friendship, but also based on loyalty to my department and wanting the best for my students,” she said.

Bulla, the department chair, wants van Tuyll to slow down. The odds don’t appear in his favor. She’s faculty adviser for a student publication, The Phoenix, which Bulla said is better organized than it was last year. He’s betting she’ll beat cancer.

“She tends to win a lot,” said Bulla, a former sportswriter.

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Van Tuyll has her own “Rate My Professor” profile. She’s a stickler for proper grammar, explaining there are 12 to 15 uses for commas, and informs her students when they’re not used correctly. Her media law students are “terrified” of her. Van Tuyll acknowledges she’s tough, just like her college professors were with her. Van Tuyll views teaching like journalism: you research and present your findings. She enjoys it.

She communicates with her students more frequently via text messages and through video chats.

09/15/2020 - Augusta, Georgia - Augusta University seniors Mason Ryals (right) and Thomas Ellis (left) talk amongst themselves while walking through campus at Augusta UniversityÕs Summerville location in Augusta, Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Van Tuyll has been open about her diagnosis with her students and when she needs them to be patient with her. In turn, the professor who admits being tough on students is being more patient with them.

The pandemic, and perhaps her diagnosis, has changed van Tuyll’s approach to teaching.

She doesn’t push students who mute themselves or don’t share their screens. She gives fewer exams, opting for more quizzes or written assignments. Articles in higher education trade publications have encouraged her to pursue different methods to grade students.

Van Tuyll has been creative in the classroom. She has students conduct Bill of Rights reenactments. She designed her syllabus like a newspaper. The strategy is working. Somewhat. Some students, she said, aren’t completely reading directions and not following the instructions for various assignments.

Fifth-year senior River Gracey, 22, is in van Tuyll’s media law class this semester, the fourth course he’s taken with her. He describes her as tough, but thoughtful. If you work hard in her class, she’ll work hard to help you.

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Gracey messaged her after she told the class about her cancer before the semester started. Gracey was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma after graduating high school and is now three years cancer free.

He remembers the days when he was tired after his cancer treatment, and can tell when van Tuyll appears weary. He’s told her there are good days to come, such as when his taste buds re-emerged eating a burger at a restaurant. It was a moment of joyous tears.

Gracey is in awe of her. Her focus, he said, is not on cancer, but teaching them through the pandemic.

Van Tuyll’s attitude, he said, is “we’re going to get through this together.”

09/15/2020 - Augusta, Georgia - Augusta University freshmen NaÕTia Riley (right) and Crystina Geathers (left) talk amongst themselves while snacking after classes let out for the day at Augusta UniversityÕs Summerville campus in Augusta, Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Van Tuyll misses the energy of being on campus. She doesn’t go out much, primarily because of the pandemic. Amazon is her primary shopping partner. She plays the harp and tin whistle alongside her husband in an Irish band. They haven’t played live since the pandemic began. She sometimes plays the harp at home as a stress reliever.

Van Tuyll frequently thinks about something her pastor says when she talks about cancer and her treatment.

“We’re all unique creations of God’s creative will,” the quote goes.

“I, too, am a unique creation of God’s creative will,” she said. “His will for my life will be what it is and I’m going to do my best to submit to what it is.

“I don’t submit well," she continued before laughing, "but I’m going to try.”

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