“The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis of health, and also of meaning. How will we survive, and what will we become?”

So begins an ambitious effort by UT Health San Antonio’s Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics to chronicle the pandemic’s overarching threats not only to health, but also to the structures of society, and to pose the deepest questions of morals and ethics in a shaken world.

Pan Pals is a comprehensive website that leverages the tools of ethics, philosophy, history and art to respond to the moral and ethical needs of the community during the COVID-19 crisis, said Rachel Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and medical humanities and ethics.

“I’m very excited about Pan Pals because the humanities as a field are specifically attuned to responding to questions of meaning, and helping people navigate the thorny moral questions that come up when they’re involved with suffering or when there are big changes in society,” Dr. Pearson said.

Pan Pals has two arms of outreach. The Pan Pals website contains stories of health care heroes, images and narratives, essays and poetry — all presented through the prism of the pandemic.

“We are asking people to share their sources of hope,” Dr. Pearson said. “People are telling us how they’re getting by during the stay-at-home orders, and they are sharing a lot of the same sources of meaning and hope that you would expect — images and stories about family, nature, art projects, food.”

One featured black and white photo, by Long School of Medicine student Carson Cotrino, depicts her boyfriend and younger brother playing Legos in the early morning light on the day of her grandfather’s funeral. “I found the moment so innocent in the midst of a rising global pandemic, and the death of my grandfather,” Cotrino wrote.

The second arm of outreach is the Pan Pals Chat. The first chat was a sobering discussion about thorny issues health care providers will face if available treatments, such as ventilators, are too limited in supply to save the lives of all patients. Jason Morrow, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio and the Howard and Betty Halff Professor in Medical Humanities and Ethics, was the featured speaker.

“In the chats, we bring to the table an expert who can speak from personal knowledge in the humanities or in community-based work about a question that matters to people right now, and then we invite everybody who connects with us online to join the conversation,” Dr. Pearson said. “They can do this by writing comments during the chat, by commenting on the website afterward, or making comments out loud if we are able to accommodate them.”

Pan Pals is directed at faculty, staff and students of UT Health San Antonio — “people who are directly working and involved in the pandemic or who are preparing to become health care providers during the pandemic,” Dr. Pearson said. But another key audience is the community at large. Members of the public are encouraged to submit their photos and stories to panpals.org and listen to the chats.

“We want to hear from anybody who has a story to tell,” Dr. Pearson said. “We are going to be sharing stories of San Antonio families and how they are contributing to the ongoing function of society and the care for others during the pandemic.”

The Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics operates under the Long School of Medicine and is directed by Ruth Berggren, M.D.