As a medical student now in the time of COVID-19, many friends and family have turned to me seeking advice and guidance in an uncertain time. I’ve appreciated how my different experiences in medical school have prepared me for this responsibility. My immunology and pathophysiology classes can explain how COVID-19 spreads, how it attacks the respiratory system, and how the symptoms manifest itself. But I quickly came to realize that an intellectualization of the problem wasn’t exactly what people deeply craved. Through my conversations, I came to realize that at its core, people had never coped with such a global challenge before, and as much as people sought tangential facts, they also yearned for moral guidance.
The benefits of the modern era and those of peace and economic stability are that we seldom ever have to experience existential challenges like the one we face now, and yet the unintended consequence is that we don’t necessarily have the direct first-hand experiences to turn to for guidance once we do have to face such a problem.
And so now as I reflect, I realize that the greatest teacher I’ve had in medical school to prepare me for this role was Ms. R, a 97-year-old Italian-American lady I met during one of my second-year offsites. She was born in 1922 in the Bronx, and when I learned of this fact, I knew there was much I could learn about Ms. R beyond just the lightheadedness for which she had been admitted for and was now stabilized.
I asked her about what it was like to live through the Great Depression and World War II.
Ms. R told me she was a simple child when the Great Depression hit. Early on in her childhood, in times of adversity, she had learned that it did not really matter what she had expected out of life, but rather what life expected out of her. She did not have the play-dates or the extracurricular activities that many children today enjoy, the gifts and toys. Rather, it was what her family had needed of her to help them get through an economically difficult time that dictated how she lived each day. She helped around the house, did chores, and felt of use relieving her parents of the strain they carried.
This attitude persisted for Ms. R when she became a young woman, marrying her high school sweetheart at the age of 18. But right after this time, America had entered the Second World War, and Ms. R’s husband was drafted onto the Pacific Front, leaving her and their newborn daughter behind.
Their good-bye before his deployment would be the last time she would ever see her husband, as he was killed in action. Ms. R would never remarry and would raise her young daughter on her own.
How did Ms. R get through such setbacks?
“I never thought of myself as more special than anyone else,” she told me. “I am just as much a human as any other human being. Why should I have been spared a fate that befell so many? Almost everyone I knew around me had lost someone in the war. When my brother came back from the war alive, I just felt so blessed that his wife would never have to experience the pain that I had felt.”
“I always thought of the duties I had to the people in my life, the responsibilities I had to others,” Ms. R would say. “I never wanted to feel sorry for myself. My daughter needed me. My parents, who were aging, still needed me. So I did what needed to be done, and now I have beautiful grandkids and great-grandkids!”
Ms. R never had the opportunities that many of us today have. She never went to college and worked as a seamstress for her entire life. She never remarried because she feared a second husband would treat her first daughter unfairly. She’s even a cancer survivor. Though from talking to her, and her friendly calm demeanor, you would find it hard to imagine she had gone through so much.
“I learned to make the best Alfredo sauce,” she told me before I left her room. “I wish you could have tried it. Cooking became such a dear joy of mine because it allowed me to spread joy to others.”
Ms. R lived a full and rich life, despite the many sorrows and pains she endured. In these times of uncertainty, we require science, public health, and medicine. As a medical student, I feel amazed by the advances we have made in our vaccinations, our ventilators, and our anti-viral medications. These advances feel me with hope.
As much as science has advanced at its core, COVID-19 is a story of human beings, of how the pandemic affects individuals and families and communities. As such, we can benefit from the wisdom and experiences of those who have lived through human history, extraordinary individuals like Ms. R, who share with us the true resilience and generosity of the human spirit, a spirit that can be found in each of us in times like these. It’s found in the recognition that we have the power to dictate our attitudes and that in embracing the duties we have to ourselves and to others, we too, can carry on.
Johnathan Yao is a medical student.
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