As I dealt with the news on a spring break trip to Myrtle Beach with my teammates, I felt lost. Scuppered dreams of completing a research trip to the Bahamas to study the impact of Hurricane Dorian on people living with HIV/AIDS over the summer, combined with the shattered hopes of successfully competing at the ultimate frisbee sectionals tournament as my team’s captain, disheartened me completely. The frightening prospect of my academic momentum fading away paled in comparison to the terrifying reality that I had lost the chance to spend precious time with people whom I loved on a campus I felt as connected to as my home. Blinking away tears, the empty feeling inside me changed as my teammates opened up and spoke of their love for the team and for each other. Seeing such a display of affection and vulnerability brought me a deep joy and peace; as a captain, nothing else carried the same importance as fostering a positive community did. However, my tears began to flow once more, this time born not of sadness, but of frustration. What could I have done to bring this openness and vulnerability forth sooner? Why did it take a season-ending pandemic for people to feel comfortable loving one another so openly? I fought back this feeling and hoped my frustrations would dissipate, but over the course of the summer, they would grow more and more.
The rest of the semester, though emotionally extremely trying at every step, ended successfully. However, the long and hard path I planned for my summer made the incessant grind of my final semester at Washington University look small. This summer, I had planned to study for the MCAT while living in an apartment with friends in Columbus, Ohio. The idea had been set in stone for six months: I would move in, and spend 30-40 hours a week studying at one of Ohio State University’s libraries. Each morning, I would go to the gym, and every other week, I would go home to my family in Cincinnati, where I would rest, recuperate, and visit my therapist. Obviously, like everything else, those plans flew out the window. I resigned myself to studying at home, and to telephone visits with my therapist. As for the lack of gym, I supposed I could do body-weight workouts at home, though I reckoned the idea was more of a pipedream than anything else. Living with my best friend would have to wait, I thought, as I geared myself up for the challenge of studying in my room instead of my preferred dead-quiet library.
I had hoped COVID-19 would spur societal change in our broken country. I had hoped that the pandemic would spark life into what often feels like a republic in its death throes.
As one might imagine, the frustrations of working from home, though oftentimes recognizably petty and insignificant, can certainly stack up into a formidable wall of distraction. Ranging from my neighbor next door, who thought it best to have his weekly shouting match with his family outdoors, all the way to two Labradoodles, who frequently found it funny to bark their heads off at six in the morning, the tiny distractions left me with a constant feeling of irritability. Yet, all those tiny, and frankly, stupid, obstacles to my focus were nothing compared to what I would experience.
I had hoped COVID-19 would spur societal change in our broken country. I had hoped that the pandemic would spark life into what often feels like a republic in its death throes. I had hoped that the outrageous amount of inequalities in this country, such as those concerning healthcare, would find themselves addressed as a result of COVID-19. All those hopes were dashed. As I saw officials politicizing the virus, ignoring the reason of science and the statistics of death, and openly displaying their utter and complete disregard for human life, my hope vanished, only to be replaced with cold fury. That cold fury turned hot when another grotesque aspect of our nation yanked my attention away from my studies—when I saw the video of George Floyd—who asked for mercy, and when that was not given, for his mama—being slowly and publicly murdered by a police officer.
As a Latinx person, I do my best to be an ally, but attending socially-distant rallies and having tough conversations does not feel like enough when the police brutality seemed only to escalate. Shortly after learning about George Floyd, I learned about Breonna Taylor—another innocent victim, dead as a result of heartless police officers. At the time of writing this essay, nobody has arrested those officers, and justice has not been served. My tiny frustrations exploded into mountains of rage at our society. Seeing some people finally understand the Black Lives Matter movement quelled my anger at times, but seeing opposition dig their feet in deeper than ever brought me right back. Seeing those who sought to defend police brutality simply changed my positions from left-wing to radical. I lost all patience. The United States of America, my home, the land my parents immigrated to for the boundless opportunities it held, felt broken. The cracks in our society no longer hid behind band-aids of paltry reforms and optimism, but rather gaped larger and more visibly than ever.
My summer continued, and the painful anxieties I felt surrounding my MCAT exam and subsequent plans to apply to medical school compounded daily as I read the news. Days when I planned to study six to eight hours ended up with me having studied only four, and instead watching another three episodes of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, or reading another few chapters of Henryk Sienkiewicz’ Quo Vadis. Yet, while enjoyable, I found that these distractions served as a coping mechanism for a deeper stressor. At first, I did not believe it possible to have a more intimidating stressor than the MCAT. Yet, after introspection, the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. I understood that my frustrations of studying at home exponentially increased with my anger at the world, and that the problem plaguing my soul was a feeling of helplessness. Rage clouded my mind, and thoughts of the corruption and cruelty that seemed more widespread than COVID-19 filled my waking moments. I clamored for justice—not only for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or countless other Black Americans who have been slaughtered by police, but for so much more: the migrant children locked in cages by the U.S. Border Patrol, the children preyed upon by menaces like Jeffrey Epstein, the Americans who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and those who had lost their lives to this terrible disease. All these deep, deadly, and destructive thoughts blocked my mind from focus and filled me with dark emotions of anger and hopelessness. It does not take much to go from the big and important feeling of hopelessness about our country to the specific and seemingly less significant feeling of hopelessness about the MCAT—especially when practice tests did not end up the way I had imagined.
At first, I did not believe it possible to have a more intimidating stressor than the MCAT. Yet, after introspection, the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. I understood that my frustrations of studying at home exponentially increased with my anger at the world, and that the problem plaguing my soul was a feeling of helplessness.
However, after using some of my downtime to read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a story about how a clash of cultures in the medical world impacted a young Hmong girl’s life and family, the red mist of anger cleared slightly. The story helped motivate my studying, as it reminded me of what I am capable of: I can use my empathy, my compassion, my strength, and my mind to care for people. I am capable of becoming a physician and not only treating people, but loving them. These reflections deepened over time, and I realized that the feelings of warmth and dreams of changing the future swept away the darkness that had filled my mind and stained my heart. With this feeling in mind, I dug back into my studying and jumped back into my research projects, believing in the difference I could make.
This summer brought a deep and long-lasting anger that challenged me. Only through challenge, difficulty, and discomfort can we grow and improve. I have yet to overcome the challenge of anger, as the injustices in our nation seem to show no sign of abiding. COVID-19, however, has challenged the United States like nothing we have seen before. The anger I felt ultimately changed me. I hope it changes America.