In this week’s volunteer interview, volunteer organizer Alicia Higham describes her motivation in volunteering with 1Day Sooner and her experience with calling other volunteers.
Gavriel: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where do you live, and how do you spend your time?
Alicia: I’m in the US northeast, in the New York-Philadelphia area. I started putting in my name for medical trials in April, particularly phase 1 vaccine trials. Six months later, I found a research match through clinicaltrials.gov. I’m interested in malaria and TB, but the one that got back to me out of all the ones I contacted was a really small neurological study out of a university. [The specifics of the study are to be kept off the record.] This study is going to be over 8–10 years.
Gavriel: What medical research are you most interested in?
Alicia: It’s TB. I’ve been following Abie [Rohrig] and Josh [Morrison]’s work through 1Day Sooner, but I was thinking about it even before that, because I’m always thinking globally and I’ve lived overseas. The study I wound up joining is actually low-risk, high-reward because I’m in the control group. I’m not an Effective Altruist. I’m a Quaker, which is where my interest comes from. I’m almost done certifying as a medical assistant, and I’ve known since 1Day Sooner came about — this is what you do. There are very few Americans who have my health history: no medications, no problems.
Gavriel: How did you learn about 1Day Sooner and what made you decide to sign up?
Alicia: I learned about it in June 2020 and it came across my radar somehow when I was in Michigan. Like many volunteers I’ve talked to, I went on the site immediately. I actually knew Josh Morrison’s name before, because I was aware of kidney transplants and living donors. I am a dialysis technician, so I was kind of in the right lane to be interested and never thought twice about it. I was very aware that I was not in the right age range, so I said, “can I be an organizer?” and I started calling people. Best year of my life.
Gavriel: That’s so good to hear. What 1Day Sooner projects have you worked on?
Alicia: I called a lot of people, mostly in the US but also in the UK. I was going to bed at 5 in the afternoon our time, and waking up at 1 in the morning. All the calls were fantastic. From the beginning, I thought, “These people are amazing.” After a while, I started to see myself in them, because they weren’t hesitating. They’re saying things more eloquently than I could, but I agree with them utterly. If I were 18 years old, you wouldn’t be able to keep me out of a human challenge trial. The number one reason I heard from Americans struck me so deeply. They’d say “I’m an Effective Altruist” or “I’m a libertarian” or “I’m a medical student” or “it’s the cost-benefit analysis; I’m a professional gambler.” And I would say, “Really? Walk me through that.” And they all said the same thing ultimately. “Why wouldn’t I?” That was the theme of my whole year. If I could help one person, why wouldn’t I? Hearing that as a rhetorical question was life-changing. And you’ve said it too! Forget libertarian, forget EA — it’s a human thing.
Gavriel: I was struck by this moment of connection, because you said you’re Quaker, and I went to a Quaker college. I noticed that Quaker students and the Quaker principles of the college were in line with my own values that stemmed from my Jewish heritage. I understand exactly what you mean when you say you resonated with all of these people.
Alicia: There was a Jewish volunteer who described a tradition about how there are 36 righteous people in the world. I remembered it. I had this extra question I would ask: what does the ticker [volunteer count] on the website symbolize to you? Everything from, “If I were the only person on the ticker, that would be enough, it doesn’t matter that there are 36 thousand,” to “It’s comforting, it’s heartening.” And one person said, “It’s the 36. There’s a thousand for each one of the 36.”
Gavriel: What vaccine or public health policies would you like to see or advocate for?
Alicia: Universal healthcare in the US! But I’ll really say the same thing that volunteers said to me: I trust 1Day Sooner. Volunteers would tell me, “If you say this is the top priority, I trust you.” I try to be an informed volunteer, but I trust 1Day Sooner.
Gavriel: I’m glad to hear that but I hope everyone is thinking critically! Our statements aren’t coming from on high. We want to respect our volunteers’ autonomy, not just in terms of the outside world but also respecting their autonomy within our organization. I really hope that is seen and that 1Day Sooner gets across!
Alicia: Last year, Julia [Murdza, 1Day Sooner COO] was asking this question, what would you be interested in? And I said I’d try to find out on calls, but these volunteers are kicking it back to me! They said, “You have credibility and you’re so transparent about everything you do.” So yeah, it is circular. And it’s another point where I agree with volunteers. I saw myself in them.
Gavriel: I mean, it’s good to hear that people trust us.
Alicia: They do. It was the best year of my life. Like I said, I am Quaker but I haven’t always been in a place where I could attend meetings. I’ve lived overseas, I lived in China. I think of the Quaker principle called convincement, which doesn’t mean it’s just a good idea, it’s that you absolutely have to do it. That’s what happened to me over the course of the past year, with the contact I was having with volunteers. They’re extraordinary people.
Gavriel: What is the pandemic situation like where you are right now?
Alicia: New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut all cooperated in the early stages of the pandemic when they were not fond of what was coming out of Washington DC. It’s not that great here, though. There have been high rates of transmission. I was living in Michigan, in the town where Pfizer was pumping vaccines out, and I was thinking I’d almost rather be there, with the crazy politics of Michigan. I lived alone, in my small apartment, calling 1Day Sooner volunteers, and now I’m back in the Northeast. It’s like a whole new existence. But I settled here deliberately because I wanted to be near the big teaching hospitals of Philadelphia and within an hour of New York. The neurological study I’m in now will start in early February of next year and it will go on for ten years. I’m in a control group of maybe a dozen. If you’re in such a small control group, you’re not going to leave it. I’m in this for ten years. It’s a commitment.
Gavriel: Wow, so you’ve built a lot of your time and a lot of your life around this feeling of — well, would you describe it as altruism?
Alicia: I guess so! I realize that in a strange way I’ve come up on the other side of something our own challenge volunteers went through. I follow something called the Wim Hof method and kept my own health pretty good. In the same sense that if you’re blessed with good health, you might donate an organ, give blood, maybe work in medicine…As a pacifist, I’ve never understood why a human being would harm another human being. And in a way, making a life in medicine: that’s my only response to drone strikes and bombers. What do you do with your life? You do whatever you can on the other side of it, which is to pick up the pieces. I remember 9/11, and I remember SARS-CoV-1 in Hong Kong because I was living there at the time. You see this kind of thing a couple of times and the only thing you want to do is help people. Why think of anything else? Everyone in healthcare knows what it’s like to be faced with another human being who needs everything. I’ve worked as a nurse aide, a phlebotomist, now I will be a medical assistant and dialysis technician. All it takes is to see one person who is completely helpless, and we are all like that at some time in our life.
Gavriel: Well, now we have the fun questions! Tell me something you love about where you are. Give us a window into your life and the things you like to do on a daily basis.
Alicia: The art museums of New York and the symphonies in larger cities of the US northeast. I like the Metropolitan Opera. I like classical music. But New York City isn’t everything. I want to spend more time outside in a Quaker way, to have silence.
Gavriel: What are some things you like to learn about or things you’re curious about?
Alicia: I love visual art. I was an art history major, of all things! You need a lot of time, space, and materials. Visual art is very hard to pursue, but it’s what I’d love to be able to do longer-term. I love the paintings of Rembrandt. This is a digital world, but those paintings are centered on humans, human emotion, and what humans face in life, which is profound! Every year of your life, you think the highs are higher and the lows are lower, but it’s all worth it. There’s this saying, “Your life is none of your business.” It’s bigger than you are. Bigger things draw you in, happen to you, become the way that you orient your life, and I think the pandemic is convincing evidence of that. I’d already been listening internally: what do you want to do with your life? You want to do something for other people.
Gavriel: I resonate with what you’re saying, because it sounds like you relate your artistic and internal life to the world around you, how other people live their lives, and to science.
Alicia: Yeah, I think medicine is the ultimate humanistic endeavor. Twenty years ago, I traveled to Florence, Italy and in this gallery I suddenly saw a self-portrait of Rembrandt as a youth. Maybe 22 years old, one of his first self-portraits. On the other side of the doorway, there was the last self-portrait he painted. And I cried.
Gavriel: I’m getting chills listening to this. It’s very deep to me to see the way an artist thinks about themselves and puts themselves into their work. I appreciate the human connection behind it.
Alicia: Art was never abstract to me. When I see a painting by Rembrandt, I know that was a man I could talk to. I know exactly what he was expressing. His life was sad — it was so sad, and yet it was triumphant, because he felt so deeply for other people.
Gavriel: Before we wrap up, is there anything you hoped we’d get to that we didn’t or anything you hoped I’d ask that I didn’t?
Alicia: 1Day Sooner allowed me to be myself in a strange way. It wasn’t about me, it was about the volunteers, but in the process of talking to them, I became myself! 1Day Sooner is bigger than any one person. It has tremendous momentum for all the right reasons. Thank you, 1Day Sooner.
Gavriel: We all really value your work and your volunteering. This has been fantastic, thank you so much!