When I was 13, my spleen was removed, leaving me immunocompromised.
When I was 29, I was accepted to grad school, so I had to choose between my health and education.
I'm entering my second year of grad school and hoping more people will wear masks.
I was 13 when a surgeon removed my spleen. I have a rare genetic condition that inhibited my red blood cells from passing through my spleen correctly, making me anemic. The best solution was the splenectomy, which removed an organ that supports people's immune systems.
I was left with a body that is highly susceptible to respiratory infections. A cold can settle deep in my lungs within hours; fevers and sore throats can send me to urgent care.
Fourteen years later, COVID-19 emerged, and my doctor explained that my spleen-less status increased my chances of becoming seriously ill if I contracted the virus. I was fortunate to have health insurance, a doctor I trusted, and the ability to work remotely. For two years, I rarely left my house — even after I got vaccinated and boosted.
But then I got into graduate school, and I had to choose between my health and my education.
In 2022, I was accepted to an in-person graduate program
Attending school has always been difficult for me. I lived in constant fear and got sick often, forcing me to miss classes for extended periods of time. I eventually got my GED, and it took me many years to complete my undergraduate degree. When I was accepted to a graduate nonfiction creative writing program at 29, I knew I would have to deal with all those issues again, but on a much higher scale because of the pandemic.
I had a choice: either decline to enroll in the graduate program and continue working remotely or embark on an opportunity that would facilitate future professional endeavors. Ultimately, I decided to pursue my education — with caution and fear.
When I arrived on campus I noticed signs plastered everywhere that read, "Masks are recommended, but not required." I chose to wear N95 masks — which reduce transmission of the virus by 83% — but I was one of a handful of masked students in a sea of uncovered mouths. Attending classes made me anxious, and I Cloroxed my belongings and doused my hands in sanitizer.
When I expressed my fear of getting sick, well-intentioned friends asked, "If COVID could kill you, why go to grad school?" This question pained me because it reinforced the idea that my immunocompromised status should prohibit me from pursuing the opportunities my peers had access to. The question also placed the weight of my well-being on my own choices rather than on the actions of systems and institutions.
In one of my classes, the discussion drifted toward social equality, and I was able to feel comfortable for once
In class, we explored how progress depends on people who are seemingly unaffected by a problem to act in solidarity with those who are impacted.
"I feel like pointing out that I am the only masked person in this room," I said. I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth. I respected my peers and didn't want to make them uncomfortable. When I left the class, I wished I'd kept quiet.
The following week, I entered the classroom and froze. Every person was masked. I wasn't aware of the tightness in my body until the pain in my shoulders and jaw dissipated. My constant fear of COVID seeps into every moment and every muscle. It takes a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy to try to stay safe.
That day, my peers gave me the gift of not having to choose between my health and my education — of not having to negotiate the risk of getting sick against my desire to be in school. In an act of solidarity, they made the classroom accessible to me.
I'm trying something new in my second year of grad school
According to the CDC, COVID is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, and weekly cases of hospitalizations have increased by 12%. These numbers suffocate beneath the desire to "return to normal."
My despair is a reaction to those who urged others to stay home during the early days of the pandemic and claimed to care about protecting their communities but have since abandoned all precautions. People I love dearly justify moving through the world unmasked because they trust they can recover from COVID if they catch it.
I'm not saying I want everyone to wear masks in perpetuity; I am saying fewer folks would get sick if more individuals were cautious while COVID's full impact continues to be determined.
My second year of graduate school is about to begin. I often think about the rush of relief that flooded my body when I encountered a classroom full of masked students. I intend to disclose my immunocompromised status as many times as I need to, in as many rooms as I need to, because I've been fortunate to see that people do respond.
But truthfully, I wish I didn't have to explain; I wish my mask spoke for itself.
Read the original article on Insider