First-year medical student
Columbia Vagelos College
of Physicians and Surgeons
New York City, New York
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
— Gwendolyn Brooks
In the noise and whip of the whirlwind, the city shuttered. It shed its coat, no longer able to clothe itself in the satins and silks that obscure and enthrall. No, the whirlwind rips away the cloth to measure and inspect the components within. It narrows in on fragility, on the bits held together by chance and prayer. It runs over the forgotten with gleaming eyes. The gaze of the whirlwind is indeed inverted. It is entirely interested in that which the city isn’t, focused on that which grows in the face of neglect.
And so, when the city fell, it fell inconsistently. The whirlwind blew across the entire city, yes, but it settled on parts long used to visits from calamity: blacker, browner, poorer parts unsheltered by the city’s cloth, unhidden from each of the whirlwinds that came before. If the city is laid bare — as it has been and if its intentions are made clear, what would be uncovered: sustained ambivalence? An inherited belief that violence enacted in the periphery ceases to exist in the same plane, endure the same scrutiny, or merit the same accountability?
In the end, the whirlwind reflected a city back to itself, and indeed what is clear is the city had long ago accepted inequality so embedded as to be assumed the natural order.
Once, in high school, we were assigned a project to prepare us for the reality, and likely the cruelty, of life beyond the crumbling one-story buildings. It was as if our lived experience of, or perilous proximity to, poverty and violence weren’t lessons enough. Scenarios were arbitrarily assigned — single mother of two working part-time at a grocery store or dentist in an orderly family of four — and binders were provided with options of the homes, foods, activities we would choose between to build out our assigned lives.
An easy lesson is that tomatoes can take on many prices. Could you afford rent if you chose the wrong tomatoes? Could you simultaneously sustain hobbies and clothe your children? Periodically, teachers would give the imagined lives a shock — a child becomes ill, a car breaks down, a job is lost. If not a test of the context in which the lives are lived, then the surprises had to be a test of the person: can your choices absorb the shocks? It’s a moralized economic determinism that we learned: if your assigned fate means you can’t afford the right tomato, your every effort should be made to escape it — notwithstanding the fact of a system in which escape is near impossible. To be undone by the unexpected, destabilized by the unknown is a sad inconvenience of a society not designed for your benefit.
It’s a bullet point relegated to the bottom of the PowerPoint, some distance from the other lines, as if the writer knew the words needed space (or the writer needed space from the words): African American and Hispanic communities are at increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Period not question mark. As if it’s an undisputed fact and not a question, which requires answers. Period not exclamation mark. As if to claim quietly that some bodies are harbors for suffering. How easy inaction becomes; what a justified stance ambivalence can seem.
The noise is quieter of late; the sirens puncture less often. They used to ring regularly – calling to one another, with one another, and forming a collective rhythm, bone-chilling and otherworldly. Stuck in the liminal space between outsider and practitioner, I, a first-year medical student, surrender hollowly to their calls. I edge towards the window to chart their path across streets and highways, under bridges and up hills — timing traffic lights to monitors and breath sounds. I visualize the emergency department I barely know, bracing for the hurt and pain. If the sirens called to me by name, when the sirens call to me by name, will I recognize my response? The anger, pain, defeat, and fear I know so well — will I find ways to wield it effectively?
Pink and purple, purple and spots of red glare back at me through the black box in the internet where I spend my days. Cells called too feverishly are crowded in slide after slide of preserved lung tissue presented by the pathologist teaching our pulmonology course. Whispery pink threads of protein line what used to be lung architecture, ultimately replacing the architecture. The whirlwind made it inside and the body tried and failed at sealing itself into wholeness.
Studying the “essential nature of diseases” is the realm of pathology. A comforting process I imagine — slicing a piece of the terror neatly, holding it in place, painting it into clarity and lighting it into view. Visualize to understand, understand to overcome. In the vastness of the ambiguity, what it must be to magnify and produce some knowing.
I answer the call standing over the stove in the apartment I’ve barely left in the last month. Platitudes turn to concern, mine and my uncle’s. I feel around his words, tuning my ear to pick up trace anxiety. I ask about children and church, this family and that – hoping to be told the truth of how he’s managing inside this uncertainty.
“And the restaurant?” I ask. “Are you still keeping the restaurant open? What about your job at the hospital, are they still having you come in?” Silence follows a soft chuckle I can’t decipher. “The disease or not having money, they’re not much different, baby.”
The whirlwind roiled through the city, upturning and destroying irreverently and completely. Yet, in its shuttering, too, the city was inconsistent. Some went inward, to be sure, but some went outside. What it is to tie person to currency is that some remain outside.
Ruth Assefa is a first-year medical student from Seattle, Washington. She is not yet committed to a medical specialty but intends to find ways to be of service to her communities in the U.S. and Ethiopia.