On August 20th, 2017, 230 new students (including me) gathered at the Moody Gardens Convention Center and received our white coats. Little did we know that we would not actually be starting medical school in a week.
The school asked us to arrive around 12:30 pm for a 2 pm ceremony. While it was frustratingly early, it did give us a chance to bond with our new classmates. I remember discussing TV shows, family life, the intricacies of health insurance, and many other topics. Let me tell you, I immediately felt at home. No, I didn’t know these people surrounding me, but I did feel a likeness. We all desired to pursue the same profession, and we all elected to attend UTMB for one reason or another. There is a non-joke joke on the island about “Island Time,” where everything is laid back and probably running a bit late. Remember, most of us are Type-A personalities who prefer order over chaos. We prefer to know what is going on, and yet, on island, there is an ease in the way one lives. I felt it the moment I walked onto campus during interview weekend. Or perhaps it was just the sea breeze; it is soothing to feel the warm wind wisp my hair around, to smell air scented like saltwater.
Everything about the school and the island entices you to slow down and take a deep breath. All 230 of us students thought this breath was to calm our nerves before our first day of medical school. We were wrong. It was for something entirely different.
I remember hearing on Monday, August 21st about a possible tropical storm. No one was very worried, but word was spreading about its existence. Come Tuesday, the storm pattern seemed to be developing and heading towards the Caribbean. Wednesday: it is near the Yucatan and named Harvey. It is coming for Texas. Thursday, my peers are discussing leaving for the weekend. Not leaving: evacuating.
I don’t think anyone in Texas anticipated the devastation that Harvey was going to bring to our southern and southeastern counties. My friends who “evacuated” to Houston and the surrounding areas did so because they thought they would be safer there than on Galveston Island, notoriously known for getting creamed by hurricanes.
I could recount the tales of shock surrounding Harvey and the subsequent devastation, but instead I want to tell the tale of my peers.
230 new students. Very few of us know each other. On that Monday of orientation most of us sat around in Levin Hall awaiting our time slot to take ID portraits. One social butterfly in our group, let’s call her K, made it a point to meet a whole slew of us. She set out learning names and exchanging phone numbers. Half-jokingly I suggested we make a GroupMe (a massive group text) for our class, and she and others in our pod all seemed excited by the idea. The two of us gathered phone numbers and added at least 80 of our new colleagues to the GroupMe that afternoon. By Thursday over 120 were added. On August 29th (8 days since its beginning) 180 of my peers are in this group text.
That is nearly 80% of the incoming School of Medicine class. What I find more interesting than the numbers, though, is the concern that we have shown for each other. On Thursday of orientation week, we received our ID badges and then parted company. Over 90% of my class left the island to “evacuate” from Hurricane Harvey. Instead, they got stuck in the middle of it and/or were unable to return because of incidental flooding.
Many miles separated us, the nigh-strangers who just began this journey of medical school together. Yet, we held onto each other through the GroupMe, Facebook, and cell phone communication. We asked how weather was in different areas. Those in Dallas asked if returning to the island was possible only to be urged to stay put in their safe location. We texted each other individually. We gave updates about traffic and flooding. Those on island spoke of the conditions here to those that had evacuated and left their belongings behind.
I cannot speak for everyone in my new class, but for myself, I feel immense concern for these individuals that I have only known for roughly a week. I always heard that the friends you make in medical school would help you through the most difficult years of your life. I thought that meant help after endless hours of studying and stress about looming Step Exams and Boards. I don’t think any of us were prepared to handle a hurricane and horrific flooding our first week of medical school.
UTMB had to cancel the first week of school, but that hasn’t prevented us from being a class. If anything, I think this untraditional start to medical school has prepared us to hunker down and help one another even more. Yes, we’ve been separated and our start has been delayed, but we are already a community. We are dedicated to each other’s well-being. We joined together even when we were far apart.
We never expected to be a whole week behind in material because of a natural disaster. Even after we finally start classes and rarely leave study sessions, I think we’ll all live with more ease and gratitude. The sea breeze that wisps my hair around my head will remind me, and I presume my classmates as well, of how easily storm and destruction can fall upon us.
Typically Galveston is hit hard during hurricanes, but this time the island escaped. Many of my peers, unfortunately, left the island only to get stuck in disaster’s way. I hope and pray that we all return to the island safely. I want my 229 peers alongside me for the next four years of hard work, stress, and potentially more hurricanes. Once the flooding subsides, we’ll return to campus with gratitude and renewed purpose of learning medicine in order to help our communities during the next disaster. We are the Class of 2021. We will continue to support one another when the gales grow strong and the storm surges swell. We just got to UTMB, and we won’t leave without our M.D.s.
Bring it on, hurricanes.
Author’s note: I wrote this on August 29th, and I believe everyone is back and learning with us as we prepare for our first midterm in less than 2 weeks.