From my early days in medical school, I knew that I wanted to become a psychiatrist. My decision was met with mixed opinions from my family and colleagues, as stigma towards this specialty persists. But I’ve always longed to pursue a career in psychiatry and hoped to contribute to fighting the stigma and spreading awareness of mental health and illness. The exceptional approach psychiatry takes in exploring human behavior and the motivations that drive it is fascinating and deeply rewarding. It also provides a unique privilege to not only be part of the patient’s story, but also have a role in achieving a positive shift in their narrative.
We were young, happy, in love, and planning for the future. My husband thought that it would be prudent to explore the possibility of furthering our careers abroad to ensure a secure future for our family. He was a banker but also very passionate about farming. I was fresh from university and not yet established, so we decided that I would be the first to pursue opportunities abroad.
I remember hearing on the news that in China there was an outbreak of a new respiratory virus. Shortly thereafter, this virus propagated all over the world. I made video calls to my family members back in Guatemala to discuss the importance of isolation and the use of masks. They were really scared because the virus was killing hundreds of people around the world and had just reached my home country. I was training in Chicago, Illinois at one of the biggest hospitals in the city. Cook County serves a large population of immigrants and non-insurance patients. It was a time of great uncertainty for many. The virus continued to spread and one day I received a phone call from my chief resident, indicating that I would be reassigned to the first medical COVID-19 response team. I agreed without thinking because I wanted to help these patients. After the conversation, I told the news to my wife and she started crying because she was worried about my safety. I decided not to tell my parents because this was relatively new, and they would have been very scared for my safety.
It was Match Day! I’d been waiting for this day for three long years. As I opened the email with my trembling hands, I saw it. I refreshed the email to make sure it was real. I felt a roller coaster of emotions: I was elated, surprised, and relieved all at the same time. It was my dream come true. I matched to a university program in Boston. The next few days, I kept myself busy with paperwork and family celebrations. And then it hit me that I was going to leave my cocoon of comfort and move 7,984 miles away from home.
“Doc, which C is worse for me… cancer or coronavirus?” Many patients asked this question. The anxiety of a new cancer diagnosis, waiting to start treatment, and then suddenly news of a pandemic changed everything for all cancer patients. Bewildered, some patients would hesitate to come to the hospital while others would try to hide their viral symptoms to prevent interruption of treatment. COVID-19 has presented varying challenges to all health care professionals, and being a resident physician involved in caring for cancer patients has its own unique difficulties.