All of us have the power to make choices that define us. However, the freedom to dream is not the same for all of us. Childhood adversity, country of origin, socioeconomic status, family obligations, and our health can all shape our future. I have been fortunate to have had these factors work in my favor. While choosing medicine was exhilarating, moving to the United States in my early twenties, where I had no close family, to pursue higher training was a cause of great angst for my parents. Nevertheless, all that I received from them was love, and financial and emotional support, for an arduous year as I obtained clinical and research experience in New York City and Miami hospitals before matching into residency in 2017. I realize this privilege is uncommon for many, especially females, across the globe and I am forever indebted to my family for their support.
Living the “American Dream” was a phrase I heard a lot while growing up because many of my relatives were settled in the USA. During medical school, I had made up my mind to pursue psychiatry as a preferred specialty. After making a thorough comparison of psychiatry training in Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the USA, I decided to aim for training in the United States.
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.