There is nothing as humbling as Mother Nature reminding us how small we are. Bringing massive floods and knocking down trees were not enough. In a matter of hours, Hurricane María picked off every shade of green from every tree in sight and shredded whatever else she could find. Our newly gray landscape reminded me of a wintery ghost town, with brand new views of buildings and roads that the foliage had once hid.
Now, about four months later, we’re in a sort of limbo. We’re better off than before, but we have a long way to go. There’s progress and stagnation, light conveniently in some touristy places and darkness in others, hope in some neighborhoods and despair in others. We now refer to events as being pre-María or post-María because she has become this huge gap not only in our calendars but also in our perception of time. For those of us who have been lucky enough to have a job, school, or home to return to, we now live with a sense of pseudo-normalcy. We’re back in our old routines, but we still encounter daily reminders of the turmoil María caused, such as nonfunctional stoplights, endless traffic jams, unearthed roots, tree stumps, and dangling electrical wires at every turn.
Then there are other moments, like listening to a crowd of people singing Preciosa at the top of their lungs at a nearby bar or spotting cars and trucks boasting our flag during morning and evening commutes. Or seeing #PuertoRicoSeLevanta expressed in all shapes and forms—graffiti, posters, T-shirts, you name it. Or listening to a seventy-something-year-old woman with a fractured hip thank you incessantly for providing water and reassurance in the middle of a bustling FEMA tent. Or counting how many leaves are starting to grow back on the trees.
Counting leaves and blessings had become rituals for me, especially during my brief time as a FEMA volunteer at Centro Médico, helping the literally and figuratively broken. Ironically, my motivation for volunteering might sound selfish. I was feeling emotionally conflicted during the first post-María days, battling a confusing combination of uselessness, sorrow, and even guilt for feeling the ways I did since my house fortunately suffered minimal damage. So I felt I needed to help out for my own sake. Sure, like every other eager medical student, I was hungry for actual medical experience or even the slightest possibility of holding a Band-Aid.
More so than being curious about how people were doing and how I could help, though, a part of me just wanted to find something to which I could connect. Something that could reconnect me to the island that now felt like an alien world. Something that could reassure me that my home was still here, still standing even after 175 mph winds. I found that something in the eyes of the patients at Centro Médico. Whether their eyes were filled with tears, joy, or some strange discharge, they made my seemingly simple job as an interpreter all the more rewarding.
The patients’ eyes were not the only ones worth noting. Many of the people around me had a spark in their eyes as well—a newfound appreciation for the little things, a strengthened sense of optimism and social consciousness, and above all resilience. Resilience has defined our recovery; it is evident in everything from local businesses rebuilding to medical professionals making the most of limited resources and generator-powered operating rooms. I had the privilege of witnessing this resilience firsthand in my classmates too. Although we spent most of our pre-María time worrying about the Step 1 exam, María forced us to think about the bigger picture too. She made us realize that we don’t have to wait for that medical degree to help those around us.
Along with my home’s physical transformation came a psychological one that has, for the most part, provided a new outlook of compassion and strength. All those Pinterest quotes your mom loves about getting back up after life knocks you down have a lot of truth to them. We are those quotes. The medical students who dropped their books to help their communities; the neighbors who lost everything but helped clear the roads in their towns; the families that moved mountains to bring their loved ones to shelters and medical centers; and the countless nurses, physicians, and volunteers who missed meals because they were busy helping others.
Going forward, I want to channel the resilience I saw inside and outside that FEMA tent, whether it’s pushing through another long night of studying, another night shift in the hospital, another challenging conversation with a patient or colleague, or another moment of self-doubt. I’m extremely thankful for the helpers and the doers after Hurricane María, because they are the kind of people I want to be, and their resilience has persisted well after the major news channels stopped reporting about us.
We are still here. Our home has changed forever, but she has never looked more beautiful.