I am ill and away from home, but not without a new family

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I am ill and away from home, but not without a new family

I am from Puerto Rico, from a little town called Coamo in the southern part of the island. I am currently in Philadelphia, pursuing my PhD at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.

Being Puerto Rican doesn’t make me an international student since we are an unincorporated US territory, but it has its challenges – primarily those related to language and culture. My mother tongue is Spanish and Puerto Ricans are very warm, welcoming and always willing to help. We kiss people on the cheek even if we are meeting them for the first time. I miss these warm customs here. I also miss the sun, the heat, ocean breeze, my family, and my best friends. My Magnific Five (my best friends from high school), my two best friends from college, and my parents are the best support system I could have asked for.

After I moved to Philadelphia to pursue my PhD, I started flunking classes for the first time in my life. I remember crying every Sunday all through my first year in the US. Eventually, I got diagnosed with anxiety, and now, while I’m sick during this pandemic, the people around me are supporting me through it all. When I “disappear” and don’t answer their messages, they are the ones who worry the most. They call me and motivate me to keep going. Because it is so hard to move from everyone and everything you know and do this alone, I’m so grateful I have them in my life, especially during such a difficult phase in life.

My troubles continued. As the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to engulf large parts of the world, I fell ill too. On the 1st of April, I started having fevers, fatigue, and shortness of breath. I called a doctor and they informed me that I may or may not have COVID-19, but since my symptoms would be categorized as “mild” and I’m in my 20s, I was not given any test referrals. I started taking respiratory therapy but still the symptoms persisted. Days of waiting in my room made me realize that I have another support system and that’s here in Philly – and this support system includes my lab mates, PI, and housemates.

I couldn’t leave my room, but I never had to go hungry. My housemates would leave food for me by my door and keep checking on me. My lab mates and PI would text me to see if I’m alright or if I need anything. Because of such support, such amazing people I now know that I made a great decision coming here to study. I feel truly supported here, even though I am far from home, and I have finally created a new family with my friends and mentor.

This quarantine has been rough. I used to think I was okay not going out because I am an introvert but I realize that I miss walking and spending time with my friends! I even miss going to my lab and doing experiments there – haha! This time has also made me realize that I need to put my health (mental and physical) first. Without it, I will not be able to achieve anything.

I thought I was getting better, so I kept trying to read and write about my research since my preliminary (qualifying) exams are in May! But my symptoms worsened and I finally got tested. As I now wait for the results, and continue talking to the doctors, I hope to get better soon and pass my prelims to make both of my support systems proud of me. Every single video call, text, and email from them is giving me the strength to carry on, reminding me that I have something great outside the four walls I’m currently in. I can barely wait for the day when all of us are together again, happy and healthy!

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Published on: Apr 16, 2020

Passionate about science diplomacy and communication
See more from Alexandra Maldonado Lopez


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