On Feb. 17, 2010, while I was teaching high school science in the Bronx, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. I quickly left everything — my teaching fellowship, my master’s degree program and my friends — and returned to Chicago to be with my family and my mom.
I always knew I was going to work in health care, but I wasn’t sure which route or specialty I was really interested in. While I saw my mother suffering, I came to a very big realization: There is nothing in the world harder than watching someone you love struggle for a breath. It was the most helpless feeling to not be able to alleviate any of that hardship.
After caring for her through her illness (my mother passed away about 10 months after she was diagnosed), I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people breathe and supporting their loved ones. In 2011, I entered the Master of Science in Respiratory Care Program at Rush, where my mother received wonderful care, so I could help people care for their heart and lungs.
Rush is a world-class institution. It provides its students with the impeccable knowledge and clinical skills that we need to be the best possible health care providers. But no amount of textbooks, labs, exams or PowerPoint lectures can completely teach us the human side of medicine. That comes from experience.
When I received a 2012–13 Schweitzer Fellowship, I had a chance to step away from the books and the lectures and learn how to relate to people, listen to and understand their struggles, and truly find ways to help. I developed and implemented a yearlong project with a community-based health organization, partnering with Gilda’s Club Chicago, which offers free programming to men, women and children affected by cancer (meaning, either they had been diagnosed with cancer or had family or friends who were diagnosed).
But the biggest part of my project ended up being a 10-week curriculum, “Teen Cancer Club: Stand Up To Cancer,” which I implemented in Chicago Public Schools high schools. Every week, we covered a different cancer topic to help the students better understand the disease.
At the end of each session, we ended with a “family talk,” where we sat in a circle and I proposed an open-ended question. One of the moments that best exemplifies why I chose this project happened during one of the family talks, just four weeks into the 10-week program. The conversation was focused on giving thanks — because I truly believe that if we take the time out to reflect on how beautiful our lives really are, despite the pain and hardship, we can overcome anything in life. After people shared some very intimate moments, there was a brief silence before a student raised her hand and said, “To be honest, I’m really thankful for you. I really love being here, and you give me a reason to come to school on Mondays.” Then another student said, “I have so much fun with all of you, and I just met you guys.”
That was probably one of the best moments in my life. I know a major factor in the success of my programming is how motivated the students were to be there and how much they trusted the others in the group. There was no activity they didn’t embrace, and they were all so open with their experiences and stories.
Now, as I close out my fellowship year and prepare to graduate from Rush, I truly believe that this fellowship and my Rush education have equipped me to step into my community and be an agent for change. It allowed me to treat the other side of cancer — the emotional struggle of all those affected.