COVID-19: Oddity of a Shared Experience While Living Continents Apart from My Paraguayan Friends

Reposting a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original post here.

In early March, I had a Zoom call with the other community health Peace Corps volunteers I served with in Paraguay from 2014-2016. One of my colleagues still lives in Paraguay and he shared his impression of the Paraguayan response to COVID-19 compared to that of the US this spring: “Here [Paraguay] everything is locked down. Police will stop you if you’re on the street to ask why you’re out. People are getting restless because, as you know, here many people don’t eat if they don’t work. But Paraguay is taking this seriously. It’s mind-blowing to hear what’s happening in the United States. It’s hard to believe the news of people protesting masks and attending large gatherings during these times.”

At the time of that comment, the US was still widely debating the validity of masks and COVID-19 cases and deaths were still increasing. Vermont, where I live, was among the US states that chose a more aggressive public health approach with the hope of containing viral spread. For much of the spring and summer most business in Vermont were closed, including gyms and many restaurants. There was no curfew, however school was cancelled or switched to completely online and wearing masks in public places was mandated. The almost complete shutdown only lasted a few months. In late summer, many businesses in Vermont started to open again. Now, schools are back in session (many school districts have a hybrid of online and in-person classes). As a second-year medical student, I have in-person classes twice a week and online classes three days a week. I am required to get a weekly COVID-19 test and report any new symptoms and contacts daily.

The short shutdown and recent opening of Vermont is in stark contrast with the experiences of my Paraguayan friends during these past 6 months. I’ve remained in contact with friends in the Paraguayan community where I worked when I lived there during my Peace Corps service.

This fall, just as in the spring, my friends in Paraguay are mostly restricted to their homes. When my friends and I spoke in early summer, they said that only a few members of their extended family were still allowed to go to work. One friend shared her perspective on Paraguay’s infrastructure, “Our hospitals can’t take care of people if they get sick,” she said. “We are worried.”

In early September, I got a voice message from one of the Paraguayan women who is like a mother to me. She was on the verge of tears. She is the primary caretake of her 90-year-old mother. In my friend’s message she told me that she is scared that her mother will die of COVID-19. My friend does not have a car. The nearest hospital is 2 hours by bus. I don’t know if the buses are running right now.

I’ve returned to Paraguay twice since leaving, once for a friend’s wedding and once to meet a friend’s son before he turned one. I was planning to visit again this year because two of the children I taught when I worked there will turn 15. In Paraguay, 15 is considered an important birthday and some families have a large, wedding-like birthday party to celebrate. The two children turning 15 are like younger siblings to me and I wanted to see them during their special year.

In late September, realizing that I probably won’t travel anywhere outside of the US soon, I made a traditional Paraguayan drink called cocido. It is a warm beverage made from steeped yerba mate (similar to tea) and burnt sugar. It’s a perfect study beverage for fall and it reminds me of my Paraguayan friends and our times together. I shared a video of making cocido with my Paraguay friends. One of them mentioned that I should make chipa, a traditional Paraguayan biscuit that is often eaten with cocido. “I miss chipa!” I said over text. “I haven’t made it because it’s better in Paraguay. I’ve been waiting to visit again so I can have it there.”

My Paraguayan friend responded, “You should make chipa. Don’t wait to come to Paraguay. You’re not going to be able to come for a long time. Things are not well. Lots of people are getting sick here now. We don’t know what is going to happen with this virus.”

My friend’s comment was in stark contrast to any previous conversation we’d had about me visiting Paraguay. My Paraguayan friends remind me often that I am always welcome in their homes. Before COVID-19, every time we talked they asked when I was returning to Paraguay. Now my friends seem too far away to visit. Yet, despite the feeling that travel to Paraguay is morally forbidden during these times, there is something novel about sharing the same public health crisis in my home country as friends abroad. It is not often that the primary public health concern in the United States is the same as that in Paraguay. It is the first time since I’ve left Paraguay that I feel my life is still intertwined with the lives of my friends in Paraguay. It’s not reassuring, but it is interesting to consider how interconnected our global community is despite the borders, oceans, and mountains that separate us.

Resilience

Not so long ago, a couple of brilliant new medical students asked me how many notecards I do a day. “Doing a notecard” means quizzing yourself on its contents and making progress in remembering the information it contains so you can answer test questions on the topic. Talking about the number of notecards we do daily is typical shop talk in medical school—everyone is trying to figure out exactly how to learn the mountain of information that makes up medicine. Almost everyone decides early on in their medical school career that the only way to learn what we must learn is with notecards. But, what is the perfect number to do in a day?

I avoided answering those new medical students’ question about how many cards I do a day. I wanted to help but, it’s an unanswerable question. I am not a robot. If I were a robot, I’d do something like 500-1000 notecards a day. But that’s not how life works. Some nights I don’t sleep well. Some days I have meaningless meetings that take up the best study hours. I gotta eat. I gotta move my body. Some days, it’s just too sunny to stay glued to my desk. Sometimes I’m tired and I retain nothing. Sometimes I get bad news and I’m sad. Sometimes I’m sick. Sometimes I’m on fire and I cruise through notecards like a genius.

We talk a lot about resilience in medical school. Here are the typical discussion questions:

  • What is resilience?
  • Why is resilience important?
  • Can resilience be taught?
  • How does one become resilient?

Thinking about notecards led to me some answers. Here they are:

What is resilience? Why is resilience important?

Google defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” With that definition, it’s obvious that when you’re doing very challenging things like learning medicine it helps to be resilient. Becoming a doctor is a long process and you’re guaranteed to make a lot of mistakes. The only way you’ll make it to the “end” is by becoming an expert in self pep-talks and getting up when you fall.  

Can resilience be taught?

I don’t think so. Not once, ever, has any class, piece of advice, or discussion made me better able to endure a hardship. Every hardship I’ve endured was because I decided to bear it. I had family and friends who supported me along the way, but the healing and “how to do better next time” was mine alone to formulate. But, while I don’t believe we can teach others resilience, I do believe that resilience is learned.

How does one become resilient?

We become resilient by being challenged. The folks who are most resilient are the ones who have endured the most hardship. That’s not to say all people who have faced many obstacles are resilient; it’s just to say that you can’t be resilient if you never face a challenge. If you’ve never failed or been hurt than you can’t know what it’s like to dust off the dirt from a fall and try again. Without challenge, you can’t learn how to adapt your plan as life unfolds new surprises.

This principle is the basis of the answer to the notecard question I was asked. How many notecards do I do a day? I have NEVER, not once, done as many notecards as I hoped to do in a day. Yet, I have passed all my classes comfortably. In fact, not only have I never completed as many notecards as I wanted to…when I started medical school, I didn’t use notecards. Not using notecards was a grave mistake. When I started using them my grades improved by about 5% and, for the first time in my medical career, I had time to exercise, sleep, and socialize a sustainable amount. I switched to notecards ¾ of the way through my first semester of medical school. I was terrible at making notecards. But, I gave them a fair trial because I knew how I was studying before notecards wasn’t working. I had two choice at that point: sink or swim. Swimming involves adaptability. I decided I would rather be an otter than a rock in the deluge that is medical knowledge.

Deciding to use notecards may seem trivial until you consider that I’ve bet around $100,000 (so far) on becoming a doctor. It seems trivial except when you consider that it took me 6 years (of work) from the time I decided I wanted to become a physician to the day I got to decide how to study my medical school material. It seems trivial until you realize that I still have at least 5 years, probably 8, and many licensing exams between me and practicing medicine. The stakes are high. I could have failed upon switching to using notecards. But, I thought it was worth a try and I knew I would fail if I kept up what I was doing.

This past exam (fast-forward to my second year of medical school) was the first time I finally studied all the notecards I’d made for an exam. It’s been a little less than a year since I starting using notecards to study. I’m way better at using notecards than when I started. But, my journey isn’t over. This spring I take the biggest exam of my life (my first board exam – a national exam everyone who becomes a doctor must pass). How well I do on that exam heavily influences what residencies I can apply to and, ultimately, what type of doctor I’m allowed to become. It’s scary. My daily notecard count is only one part of how I will prepare for that exam. The number of notecards I did daily last year, over the summer, and now is different. How many notecards I do today will be different from how many I do each day when I’m in the middle of studying for that looming board exam.

What challenges and failure come to show us is that things can be done in many ways. They also show us that we can only control ourselves. For example, I can’t change how much information I’m expected to know for an exam. I can decide how to learn the information. Resilience is not complaining about something that never could have been. It’s about deciding to make your dream reality. It’s about jumping into the flood, scared out of your mind, with a willingness to evolve until you get to where you’re meant to be.