We’ve all grown up watching disasters and calamities unfold on our TV screens- witnessing history from the comfort of our couches. Earthquakes, bombings, riots, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes—you name it. Each time, you go through a similar cycle; you feel bad, you post a status in support of the strangers you’ve never met in cities you’ve possibly never been to, and then you move on. You did your part and these little actions help assuage your conscience just enough to let you get back to your life. Until those things happen to you or your loved ones, it’s almost like they don’t really happen.
Well this time, it was personal.
As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, I’m taken aback by the amalgam of posts: The Game of Thrones season finale, wedding pictures, birthday parties, images of flooded neighborhoods, links to websites taking donations, and peers looking for ways to volunteer. The variety of emotions expressed and events shared taking place in my virtual world and the things my friends are experiencing is a lot to digest at once. It makes me anxious. I quickly log off and jump to different news outlets only to be hit with forecasts, maps, radars, and personal accounts of both tragic and encouraging stories. Still, I feel uneasy. I sit back from my laptop and take in my surroundings. I’m in a comfortable bed, having just eaten a delicious Thai meal at my favorite restaurant with friends from college I hadn’t seen in months. We laughed about times from the past, caught up about the present, and shared our plans for the future. When the conversation turned to me, inevitably the current situation in the Houston/Galveston area came up. I mean, it was why I was in town. They joked about meeting up with their medical school friend, the “refugee.” I was fortunate enough to have been released from my clinical responsibilities in the hospital Thursday evening and left for Dallas that same night. I left Galveston assuming I’d be back in time to start back Tuesday, so I grabbed a couple of clean outfits and left- still wearing my scrubs and white coat. I thought nothing of it really, hoping to beat traffic and take advantage of a new four-day weekend. But at that moment, surrounded by great company and great food, it felt wrong laughing at their joke. I wasn’t really a refugee. I was lucky.
As the storm grew stronger and made its way to and through land, it became clear that things were serious. Most of the days have been filled with frantic calls and texts from friends and family across the country and world checking in. Texas is so large, that it’s understandable that those unfamiliar with the geography might be concerned even knowing I was in Dallas. In addition, friends from UTMB, McGovern Medical School, and Baylor College of Medicine were checking in with each other. Classmates were spread across the area for their rotations- some in Galveston, Houston, Clear Lake, Texas City, Corpus Christi- places we saw on the TV that looked unrecognizable. My classmates and I were marking ourselves as “safe” on Facebook. It was all becoming very real, very quickly.
Then there was the news. Radio stations, websites, iphone app updates, and every TV network sharing stories and images. The natural disaster that was 300 plus miles away felt like it happening outside my Dallas door. And as I sat in front of my TV that first day, I felt a heaviness in my heart; a mix of sadness, uselessness, confusion, and guilt. People were suffering, families separated, and property damaged beyond recognition. But I wasn’t suffering, my family was safe, and my things were with me. I was lucky.
It seems that whenever something terrible like this happens, there’s a dichotomous process I go through. Feeling bad for those affected by the events, but also selfishly relieved they weren’t happening to me. As I work through the emotions, I always end up at the same place- confused. Questions raced through my mind. Why is this happening? What can I do? What should I be doing? What could I do from so far away? Do I go back to school? Could I even get back to school? We were being emailed at least twice daily about when we could expect to return to school and every day I was walking that fine line between worry about wanting to return and relief that we had another day off. Another day of “vacation.” I was concerned about falling behind in my Ob/Gyn rotation, potentially not learning clinical skills and material, and possibly later being evaluated and graded on whatever I missed. I was worried about driving back to school through flooded areas. I was uncertain about the conditions I’d find when I made it back. The house my roommates and I just moved into a month ago, was it flooded? On the flip side, I felt relief about not having to be in school during the hurricane, about being able to stay with family – dry and safe in Dallas- catching up with friends, eating home cooked Indian food, and procrastinating on school work. I felt safe from the danger that felt so far away. I was lucky.
What has become clear over the last few days is that unfortunately, these events are never truly important until it’s personal. This disaster is personal. Though I’m not a Houston/Galveston native, I’ve visited and lived here long enough to consider it home. Three years of long-weekend visits to Houston to visit my brother in medical school plus three years of living in Galveston for my own medical school education leave me feeling closely connected to the area. I feel a sense of calm driving over the causeway into Galveston and passing by my favorite restaurants along Broadway or Harborside. Though my friends and I complain about the city, we can’t help but affectionately refer to it as “Galvy.” The pictures circulating the internet and media outlets are personal. They’re of streets I drive on and bridges I traverse frequently. The statuses I read on Facebook are about my friends and their loved ones and their flooded houses, destroyed cars, and dramatic rescues via boats, kayaks, and even pool floaties. These things are happening to people I know, not strangers on the other side of the country or world. This time, it was personal. This time it hurt more.
As I think more about it, I wonder if part of why I feel so unsettled is related to part of my motivation for entering medicine. Among many other reasons and experiences, the feeling of being helpless and useless in a time of need has always affected me deeply. In its crudest form, I wanted to help people in their suffering- provide them with answers and use my abilities and training to alleviate or abate their fears and pain. This week, I found myself feeling more helpless and affected than I have felt in times past. Maybe I feel this way because I actually have some useful skills. I can’t perform life saving surgeries or rescues, but I can monitor vitals and triage patients, so those more qualified can focus their efforts on critical patients. Maybe I feel this way because I’m scared that things won’t return to “normal” for a long time, or ever. Maybe I feel this way because we still don’t know what Harvey has in store for us. Maybe I feel this way, because sometimes that’s just how you have to feel.
As I sit in my bed in Dallas, I’m left wondering what the next steps are. It’s encouraging to see the daring rescues on TV and read accounts of families and pets reuniting and escaping unharmed. It fills me with warmth to see friends on social media from across the country offering to help in any way possible. It gives me hope to see people coming together. It also gives me motivation. I believe that anyone can pitch in from wherever they are, be it 3 miles away or 300 miles away. I believe in my classmates and our community. I believe in human resilience and that we will find ways to rebuild and recover.
I may feel sad now, but I know this too shall pass.
*Update: My classmates and I have worked to organize donation drives from major stores in the Austin and DFW areas. We plan to transport supplies back to different shelters in the Houston/Galveston area next week on our way back to school. It’s not much, but it’s a start. If you’d like to contribute, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
*The featured image credit: photo has been circulating online, and I can’t track the original photographer. For comparison, fellow blogger Danielle Strah took the unflooded picture of the bridge when she moved to Galveston. The Be Someone graffiti is pretty iconic; it’s painted along an overpass you drive under as you enter Houston and it was an image that has been shared on social media because the water level is unbelievable.