Unmasked

Kelley Zhao
Stony Brook, New York, United States

 

The hunt for masks creates doubt
Illustration by Sherry Xiao. Provided by the artist.

The lecture hall was freezing on the first day of medical school orientation. The room was buzzing with students meeting one another, and the familiar phrases floated around me as I took my seat. “Where are you from?” “Where did you go for college?” Half of the students dressed in dark suits, the others in casual summer attire.

One by one, physicians took the stage and topics and speakers were introduced. The values of professionalism and new expectations that came with being medical students were laid upon us. I sat rigid in my seat, fighting my urge to sit cross-legged. Unprofessional, I scolded myself. I was already too naturally inclined towards what was frowned upon here.

I had never experienced imposter syndrome as powerfully as I did during the first week of medical school orientation. Every gaze of professors and physicians sent me into panic. Could they see through my façade? Were they wondering, as I was, why I was here?

The week ended with a barbeque at the dean’s backyard. We arrived just as the sun grazed the edge of the glistening Long Island Sound. The backyard was a lush green overlooking the waters, and immaculately white tables were clustered where faculty and students mingled. My chest tightened at how beautiful and serene the sight was. “This is better than most wedding venues,” I muttered to my partner.

I struck up a conversation with a man as we waited for our food. He was a Red Sox fan and I liked the Yankees. He mourned that his daughter was also a Yankees fan despite family loyalties. We talked about his family, his daughter, and her studies while I shared a little bit about mine. For a moment, in the comfort of well-flowing small talk, I felt more confident in my ability to navigate a new professional identity. It’s not too bad, I thought. After a brief lull in the conversation I decided to ask for his name.

He blinked once or twice before his smile tightened. It turned out he was one of the program directors, a prominent speaker throughout the week, and I had failed to recognize him. Perhaps I misread his expression, but the fear rushed back again. I read disappointment in the pause before his answer and the change in expression that flickered across his face, and the gnawing notion set in that I was not good enough to be here. I sat mute for the rest of the night, consumed with shame. When my boyfriend asked why I wasn’t trying to socialize, I pushed for us to leave. I saw the confusion in his eyes, but he only nodded. Silently, we gathered our belongings and headed home.

My studies and classwork rapidly transformed into a veil I could hide behind, a disguise of competency and confidence. If I did well, I could fool others into thinking I belonged. Each good grade was a relief more than a celebration. A poor grade felt like a confirmation of my own insecurities, a subjective notion given damning proof.

I constantly felt chased by time, having scheduled my days by the hour. I often forgot to call home, and my mom never called for fear of disrupting my studies. I was surprised, therefore, when my phone buzzed, and her photo lit up the screen. “Hello?” I answered.

“Kai Li, we changed our Chinese New Year’s lunch. We’re eating at a restaurant near our house instead of going to Flushing (an Asian neighborhood in New York City).”

I nodded to no one. “Why aren’t we eating in Flushing?”

“Grandma and Grandpa are too scared of the virus. They want to stay close to home.”

“Virus?”

My mom made a sound of confusion. “You don’t know? There’s a huge virus, and Wuhan is under quarantine now.”

After we hung up, I looked up “Wuhan virus” and sure enough reports and endless articles turned up on the coronavirus. Images of the streets I had such fond memories of were nearly unrecognizable without the swarming crowds. I had so long associated Wuhan with my bright and loud relatives, neighbors mingling in their front yards, elderly exercising in parks, and streets where cars could barely move because of all the people. I could not fathom how severe an epidemic could be to empty it.

In a shamefully delayed thought, I remembered that my family was there. I called my mom back, and worry colored her voice. “What’s wrong?”

“Are Uncle and Auntie okay? Licheng and Lei Lei?”

I had seen my mom cry many times before, but I had never seen her strength give out the way it did ten years ago when she heard her brother passed away from cancer. She sat on my bed that day and wept. The image of her hunched over and shaking was all I could think of when she answered. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t want to lose another brother.”

That night, I was filled with a desperate desire to help. Ideas crowded my mind as I struggled to fall asleep. When I woke, I had settled on one goal: I was going to donate supplies to Wuhan hospitals.

I contacted my cousin, a nurse in Wuhan, and her hospital managers determined which supplies they most needed. Masks and gloves would be easy, I figured. “No gloves,” they responded, “but we urgently need masks.”

I soon discovered the global shortage of n95 masks—the demand had skyrocketed, and many factories that produced them were in China. Hardly anyone was working there anymore.

I asked if they had received any of the bulk donations from charities. Solemnly, they responded, “The donations were distributed to other hospitals. They were out when we got to the distribution site.”

The next day, I drove around my neighborhood visiting every store I could think of that would sell surgical masks. Despite being in Long Island, an hour away from the city, masks were sold out in every location. The only ones available were online and cost several hundred dollars per box.

“I had no luck finding masks, but I’ll keep looking,” I promised my cousin. I didn’t tell her about how expensive shipping would be, if I managed to send them at all, now that transportation to Wuhan was closing. The prospect of succeeding, of my cousin being able to breathe with more relief, felt far-fetched as I returned home empty-handed. I desperately wanted to protect her, and I wanted to protect her hope in me as well.

My phone chimed, and I looked down at her message. “The people of China thank you!”

I realized how selfish I had become in medical school. In the ceaseless demand to improve, keep up, and plan ahead, my thoughts were consumed with only me. In my search for supplies, my priorities shifted. My studies were still important, but they were no longer a disguise; they began pointing to what was more significant. I watched the virus cripple a city I loved, and now I had something else I wanted to work towards.

Every day, the snapshots of the state of Wuhan grew more uncomfortable. Infected parents were turned away from the overcrowded hospitals, crying in fear and wondering how to take care of their healthy children. The sick begged to be admitted to overcrowded hospitals, because turning away meant turning towards death. Funerals were rushed and cremation hastened to reduce the risk of infection. Hospital workers did not take breaks, abstaining from food and water during their shifts to avoid discarding precious protective masks and clothing. One hospital in Wuhan had two-thirds of their medical staff infected with COVID-19 because they had no protective gear at all, but that did not hinder them from providing care.

I wish I could recount an ideal journey, miraculously finding affordable supplies and legal transportation. I was wholly unprepared to navigate the financial burden, rising xenophobia, and political complexities that came with my honest intention to help. I did not foresee the global eruption of COVID-19 cases, such that Wuhan would no longer be the only vulnerable city. Instead, a familiar fear reemerges as I examine my failure to send relief and follow through with my goal.

When I reflect on my rationale behind this seemingly fruitless search, my family reminds me of the humanism and gratitude that have directed me. My cousin’s message reverberates in my mind: “The people of China thank you!” Below that, her hospital managers reiterated the thought. “Even if you can’t find supplies, we are very thankful.” My mom, when we visit yet another store that has sold out of masks, turns to me and thanks me for trying so hard. I think of the urgency my family and I feel and wonder at the magnitude of mourning and fear that must be gripping other families. Their need has been recognized, acknowledged, and valued, and even if it is not enough to cure, I truly hope it is enough to begin to heal.

 


 

KELLEY ZHAO is currently a first-year medical student at Renaissance School of Medicine, Stony Brook University. She grew up in New York City and received her Bachelor of Science in computer science at Washington University in St. Louis before moving to Long Island for medical school. This piece is born from the intersection of the COVID-19 global health crisis, familial ties, and medical school, and is a personal reflection on each intertwining influence.

 

Spring 2020  |  Sections  |  Education