My first day of medical school was spent surviving the Category 5 Hurricane Irma. I was on the island Sint Maarten for five days until the US military rescued us, and then did my first semester of medical school in the UK. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, I am yet again witnessing an event beyond my imagination. The lessons I learned from this experience helped me thrive in medical school and gave me perspective during this pandemic. I’m hoping my experience with disaster will help you during yours.
- Prepare to Shelter in Place
- Be Adaptable
- Think Ahead of the Game
- Embrace the Unknown
- Collaboration Over Competition
- Everyone Reacts Differently
- Practice Gratitude
Prepare to Shelter in Place
You have to find shelter elsewhere when your home is not safe. The day before the hurricane, my landlord emailed me that hurricane Irma had turned into a category 5 hurricane and urged me to shelter at my medical school, American University of the Caribbean (AUC). His last line read, “Materials can be replaced, but lives cannot.”
The hurricane wiped out the electricity and destroyed the island’s running water reserves. Since my apartment was not safe and habitable, I slept in the auditorium on three chairs pushed together. My friends slept on the tables and the ground.
During COVID times I was fortunate to live with my family during my USMLE Step 1 dedicated study period. Others are not so lucky. In the US, unemployment has been at a high. Many have lost their jobs and livelihood, and are struggling to pay rent. Stay home, practice social distancing, and wear a mask. Your life and the lives of others matter.
There are too many examples of how adaptability was essential to get through this experience. Every day was full of ups and downs with constant changes throughout each day. One of the keys to be adaptable is to accept that your plan may not go as planned. You have to let go of the idea of what your life should look like and make the best of your situation. Though I did not know where I was heading or what to expect during the hurricane experience, accepted my situation and became proactive, volunteered, collaborated, and embraced the unknown.
COVID-19 gave a perfect opportunity to enhance this skill. My USMLE Step 1 exam was originally set for the beginning of April, but like many around the world, it didn’t happen until later. It got canceled 3 times, and I had to reschedule about 7 times in order to finally take my exam in June.
I had to change my study schedule constantly. In addition, I used to silently study with someone by meeting up at libraries or at each others’ places, but when COVID hit, the options to study outside the home were closed. With social distancing, I had to be creative on how to be productive and stay motivated during the extended study period.
A friend and I started a silent study group video call where a group of friends would come together on mute and study together. It helped me power through the material efficiently and made me feel a part of a community working towards a common goal.
Think Ahead of the Game
Even in times of uncertainty, you have to be proactive. When the medical school announced that they were planning to evacuate the island, the next day my friends and I packed everything. We packed during the day and brought all of our luggage to the shelter. I am glad that we did not wait for the school to inform us to pack because, by the time they did, it was getting late. Students who didn’t pack during the day had to bring their flashlights and walk in the dark to their apartment.
During our first semester in the UK, the semester’s learning material was compressed due to the 4 weeks we lost surviving a hurricane and getting all of us to the UK. Our embryo class, which was supposed to be a four-week class, was shortened to ten days. When this change was announced, I took proactive action. A friend and I studied half of the course material together before the class started so that it would be easier to memorize the material in a short amount of time.
It worked. We did well on the midterm, which gave us a buffer room and more confidence for the final. Looking back, I would have not done as well if I procrastinated.
I used this idea for my classes during the second year. For example, for microbiology, I watched all the videos before the class started. It gave me a good preview and foundation which helped me do well in the class.
Embrace the Unknown
Go with the flow and expect the unexpected. At the same time, be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Afterwards, other random events and tasks arose. When the US military rescued us, I didn’t know where we were going. Only when I opened google maps I found out I had landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Our medical school announced that we were going to the UK, but it was unclear if we would be able to make it or not. There were hiccups along the way. Little did I know that when you are evacuated by the US military, your US passport gets automatically invalidated. It was only a couple weeks later I found out and rushed to the passport center, with barely a week until our departure.
I got my UK visa twenty-four hours before my flight but still didn’t know where in the UK our campus will be located. It was only when I got there I found out that UCLAN was hosting us and graciously provided housing.
As the pandemic continues, remember that the unexpected is expected. All we can do is assess the situation from what we know now and act from there. Embrace the unknown because life is about taking those calculated chances, even if they don’t work out.
Collaboration Over Competition
Collaboration with your colleagues is important as medicine is a team sport. But for me, it was a part of my survival. We were always in groups inside and outside of campus looking out for each other. Several teams were created: The medical, kitchen, and security teams.
Two days after the hurricane struck, my friends and I went to the kitchen to see if there was anything we could help out with. Since our school campus became a shelter, the kitchen in our cafeteria became the place meals were made for everyone. To our surprise, there was no one in the kitchen except for two. Rumor had it that someone complained that the chef was too demanding, instigating the chef to leave.
As we fumbled to figure out how to cook for a thousand people, grace came to us. A couple of the local chefs sheltering at our campus jumped in to help and dinner was served just in time. I am thankful for the chefs that stepped up, because, without them, we would not be fed. Without the help of the community, the shelter would not have been nearly as functional.
I was glad to be in a class that encouraged collaboration. We shared notes, resources, and tips with each other. When times were tough, we had our tribe to lean on. Emotional support goes a long way and I would not be where I am today without it.
Everyone Reacts Differently
In times of crisis, everyone’s reactions are unique. There were some who looked calm while others were frustrated, yelling at our leaders. Some had anxiety attacks while others spent extra time taking care of themselves to lessen their anxiety.
Do not judge how others react and respond. Everyone goes through an experience differently and comes from different backgrounds. Though everyone is going through the pandemic, people of color, especially black and Latino Americans, are affected by COVID by disproportionate rates. To say that everyone is experiencing the pandemic the same way is not true and only minimizes the suffering of minorities. Please practice empathy during these trying times.
Volunteering is a good way to serve the community and it doesn’t have to be medically related. There were multiple volunteer teams created during and after the hurricane. I volunteered in the kitchen by cooking, cleaning, organizing the food supply, and helping transport food items from the kitchen to the main building for breakfast.
There was a kind lady, an owner of some Tradewinds apartments, who was helping us organize the food. She and her husband came every year from Toronto to inspect their property to make sure it was ready for the students the next semester. While we were working together in the kitchen, her husband came to tell her the bad news: they would not be leaving anytime soon. The medical school announced they will be prioritizing AUC students and family, not American or Canadian tourists.
My friend and I felt down that they wouldn’t get the chance to evacuate the island through AUC. Later in the early evening, my friend expressed to her, “I feel really bad that you will not be able to leave, especially since you have been helping out so much.” Tradewinds lady wrapped her arm around my friend in endearment and explained, “Don’t feel bad. Think of it this way. AUC has helped me out for so many years, and this is my way of giving back to AUC.”
This is what service is about. It is about showing up with an appreciation for what you have and giving back with the same energy regardless of your current situation. When you find a volunteer opportunity, don’t do it because it will look good on your resume. Do it to express your gratitude and appreciation for what you have.
This was the most important for me. Every day I practiced it. That being said, you are who you surround yourself with. Lean on your tribe and practice gratitude with them.
In moments of uncertainty and fear, gratitude is a lifesaver. As demoralizing as the situation was, I chose to look at the bright side. Our shelter had a generator that could last up to thirteen days. We had a meal every day and enough bottled water, thanks to the food donations my classmates, others at the shelter, and I made to the kitchen. I had a working phone with a network to update my family along the way. Those five days I consciously reminded myself of what I had instead of what I didn’t.
To be honest, I am grateful I am currently not surviving a hurricane. I cannot say that this pandemic is better or worse than a Cat 5 hurricane, but I am glad that I am safe with food, water, electricity, wifi, and a home. I am grateful that I was able to take USMLE Step 1, despite the delays. Fortunate to have started clinical rotations this fall and to serve in any way I can during this time. I am thankful to be a medical student to witness the beauty of humanity, despite the universal suffering placed on hold.
Want to read more about the hurricane story or learn more about my experiences in medical school? Here is my blog that explains it all.
If you have any questions or want to see my life through medical school, find me on Instagram