The predominant story of COVID-19 is one of loss, not just of life, but a way of living. 2020 was supposed to be the happiest year of my life and at first, it felt like COVID-19 took that too.
1. Finish last medical school rotation before backpacking through Patagonia. Canceled.
2. Celebrate Match Day in Boston. Virtual.
3. Get married to my forever person, Chen Xie, on May 9th, 2020. Postponed.
4. Honeymoon in South Africa Drakensberg mountains. Canceled.
5. Graduate from Harvard Medical School. Virtual.
6. Buy our first home in Westwood. Fought off a lawsuit but got bullied into losing the escrow deposit.
7. Start UCLA Internal Medicine residency mid-June. On track, but complicated by COVID-19.
During the quarantine, we watched the time pass by, slowly at first, then in a blur. We tried to keep our heads up, knowing that the pandemic was surely wreaking far more havoc on other people’s lives than ours. Each time more bad news arrived on our doorstep, we’d readjust, “ We’ve gotten through it. It can’t possibly get any worse.”
Then it did.
On May 11th, my roles as a future physician, daughter, and advocate collided. I received a call from one of my closest friends and colleagues. She told me my father had a pancreatic tumor that would likely be difficult to operate on and cure. Suddenly, the weight of everything that had already gone awry, and the grief over loss came crashing down on me. I broke down, sobbing.
As I sat on the curb, trying to pick up the scattered pieces of my own emotional state and bandage together any semblance of strength left, I realized I needed to tell my parents. But how could I, when I could barely get two words out? Everything I learned in medical school fell away. This wasn’t some patient from the clinic. This was my dad. My standard for what constitutes a good man. My future kids’ loving grandfather. What I needed to do and be in that moment and what I was feeling didn’t match.
Since that night, it has been constant phone calls, appointments arranged meticulously. COVID-19 canceled everything and in doing so, has helped me protect his health and fight for him. Instead of focusing on wedding planning and residency, I could devote myself to advancing my father’s care and helping my parents navigate the often confusing and overwhelming world of medicine. I reached out to trusted colleagues for referrals. I preemptively avoided the usual delays and bottlenecks, calling and pushing for results to be sent out on time. This, along with knowing the right people, and lower-volume clinics due to COVID-19, allowed my dad to be seen at UCLA the very next day. Somehow, only 18 hours after discovering his tumor, we had already met with the surgical oncologist and had a tentative chemotherapy plan in place.
By May 19th, one week after discovering the tumor, my dad started his first round of chemotherapy.
Nothing has gone according to plan, but we have found new meaning in loss. Priorities are clearer. We celebrated a beautiful May 9th “wedding” weekend together, before it all imploded. He’ll be by my side when I graduate from Harvard Medical School via Zoom, which he would not have been able to make otherwise. After nine years in Boston, I am now moving back home to UCLA, where he receives a lot of his care.
COVID-19 has certainly brought on anxiety. The unknown. But as strange as it sounds, I’ve found myself somehow grateful for COVID-19. It may have saved my father’s life. It has given us time to live, the four of us cramped together, trying not to step on each other’s toes. Otherwise, we would have been full steam ahead with wedding planning and his cancer might have been missed for even longer.
We have no idea what the future holds and my dad’s diagnosis has certainly complicated things. Will starting residency in three weeks make me a health risk to my dad? Should we still postpone the August 8th wedding? But as much as fighting this dual crisis of pancreatic cancer and COVID-19 has brought out such impossible questions, this time has brought my family closer than ever.
I wish we knew the ending, but like millions of other people during this time, we don’t. We can’t control circumstances; all we can control is our actions. And we’ve chosen to find strength in each other. We’ve chosen to find hope amidst fear– the silver lining.
And while our story is far from over, that’s a lesson I’ll carry for the rest of my life.