Albert Einstein College of Medicine, MS1
May 12, 2020
I had never seen so many people together on their stoops.
That was the way I first described the Bronx to my family in Pittsburgh, inquiring about my new home, a week into medical school. I’m not sure I had ever used the word stoop before.
We had spent the first week of school learning about the dismal health statistics of the Bronx. The high rates of diabetes and hypertension, the structural racism, the poverty. There’s no denying these facts and numbers. Especially now.
But the Bronx didn’t greet me with health statistics. She greeted me with music thumping out of every car and every window, singing strangers, a beat in every step. She addressed me as “Hulia”, with the Spanish Jota, not the English J and introduced me to her young daughters who sang songs to me, dressed up as Elsa, in the middle of nail salons. She asked me in Marshalls dressing rooms if a dress made her look fat and laughed with me when we realized the sleeves were far too long. She looked at me with sincere, tired eyes, when we talked in grocery store aisles, late at night, lamenting the lack of our favorite beer.
Most of all, the Bronx greeted me with crowded, vibrant stoops, communities within themselves. Walking down the summer streets, looking out the window of the BxM10 at dusk, on every apartment building, corner store, and school, the steps, sometimes crumbling, were filled with neighbors, friends, young and old, loud and laughing, heads tipped backwards, hands around shoulders, close together.
Months later, at the end of my first year of medical school, that closeness is lifetimes away. Now, the first place I go each morning is a Twitter thread by Einstein’s Dr. John Greally, tracking the COVID-19 death tolls by borough. Each morning, this thread, with its simple colored graphs, jolts me awake, a new ratio waiting to be seared into my head.
His first post was on April 9th, weeks into the already raging pandemic. The Bronx led the five boroughs in deaths per capita, with 1 in 1,262. Yesterday morning, the Bronx still leads.
1 in 438.
Waking up to that number punches me in the gut, hard, no matter how predictable it is or was. My boyfriend and I, studying late at night in early March, he looks over at me, his dark eyes far away and deep in thought. “It’s going to be really bad,” he pauses, “when it comes here.” We are only preclinical medical students, but we work at the free clinic on Saturday mornings, we meet the people working 3 “essential” jobs, not one of which offers health insurance. We take the multiple busses and trains to get just about anywhere, we know how sparse fresh produce can be. We shadow pediatricians and quickly learn that every kid has asthma here, in “Asthma Alley,” surrounded by warehouses and major highways, whose construction in the 1960’s and 70’s abruptly uprooted 60,000 residents, decimating neighborhoods. So, we sit in silence, on that late night in early March, trying to grasp the enormity, the history, the weight of what is to come.
Those Twitter graphs force me to scroll and eventually, usually without my permission, lead me to images, videos of white men, angry, their families, dozens of guns, storming capitol buildings. Across the country, crowded parks, and funerals, and protests. I guess they don’t wake up to colored graphs.
And when I stop scrolling, return from the typed words on my screen to the thoughts in my head, that Twitter thread brings me back to a conference last May, to a plenary session on anti-racism delivered by family physician and public health expert Dr. Camara Jones, who completed her residency at Einstein. So many of her points move me to tears, but I write down her most salient and think of them often.
“Racism saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.” Now, replace resources with human lives. 1 in 438, from COVID alone. “The blinders of racism,” she continues, “have made some folks think that there is no genius in the barrios or the ghettos or the reservations... but of course, there is genius in all of our communities.”
There is genius in the Bronx, there are the hardest workers I’ve ever known. There is music, and resilience, warmth, and culture, and love. News headlines and social media posts distill this down to black and brown, minority communities, underserved areas hit hardest. Read these words, take them in, but don’t forget that these losses have cost us genius. They have sapped the strength of our whole society. I am not from the Bronx, nor pretending to be, yet I feel lucky to have been a part of it before so much of that genius was lost.
As the BxM10 continues down into Manhattan, the summer sky turns to orange, the cooler evening sets in, and the people on the stoops disappear, turn into hurried walking and Airpods and urgent phone calls. I’ve been so many places where the pace is fast, the porches are big, the neighbors come and go, but the Bronx, she greeted me with stoops I had never met before, so many people on just a stair or two, vying for room, and closeness, and warmth.
I have come to feel a sense of relief on the subway, on the bus north from Manhattan, back to the Bronx, when the stoops become full again.
The stoops will become full again.
We’ll reemerge, look around, we’ll mourn who’s missing, and eventually, I hope, we’ll huddle even closer to fill the extra space.