It should come as no secret to you that, for the longest time, I felt alone.
Like, really, really alone.
In high school, it was because I was very young and didn’t quite fit in with any one group. I was different. Sometimes, I felt like an outcast. Some were too smart. Others were too athletic. I tried to stay away from the troublemakers, although I was and wasn’t one of them. Then, in college, I continued to not fit in because I was young (16) and was utterly distracted by everything going on in my personal life.
This loneliness continued into my early 20s, when I started working at the small hospital in rural Pennsylvania. There, I wasn’t white enough. I wasn’t one of the paramedics or the cops. (In essence, I didn’t wear a uniform.) I also wasn’t a doctor, or wanted to be one despite the recommendation from so many of them that I go to medical school. (Just not my thing. Sorry.)
Yeah, I dated a girl here and there, and there, and over there. Even with them, I felt alone. By then, I was very far from home and family. When I worked on the MPH, I was working full-time at the hospital, so I didn’t have time to get to know my classmates outside of class. Then, when I got a job at the state health department, I was the outsider because I wasn’t one to follow the rules as strictly as others did… That, and I dreamed too much of better things.
All that time, though, I didn’t abandon the human race. If anything, I engaged it. From the random people I pulled over to help with their car, to the people I gave rides to in the middle of the night in DC. (Yeah, yeah, I was dumb.) I made it my life’s work to engage people, get to know them, learn their stories. I didn’t feel so alone when I found out how many others were alone as well.
By the time I got to Johns Hopkins, I was still feeling alone because all the other doctoral students were (are) much younger than I am. And the young people there are master’s students with big aspirations. (Make sure you don’t choke on your aspirations, by the way. Darth Vader said so.) I had a job at another lab and felt alone there because I was only there occasionally. (And I liked to push the envelope.)
Did I feel alone when I met my wife (CODENAME: The Girl)? I felt less alone. She understood me. She knew what made me tick, and she accepted me that way. She has tolerated all the trouble I’ve gotten into (and out of) and loves me for helping people, just like she helps people as well. There has only been one of her in my life, though. Everyone else who wanted to love me disappeared.
Then last summer happened. Last summer, a certain organization sent out a request for help in Puerto Rico with the Zika outbreak. Since I had already gone to Colombia to chase Chikungunya, I signed up to go to Puerto Rico. A three-week commitment turned into a seven-week one. After one week of training in Atlanta, I got here thinking that it was going to be like in Colombia, that I was going to be very alone.
As it turns out, I’m not alone.
I’ve told you before that there are certain people that you’re going to meet in life, and that they’re going to help you change the world. Or they’re going to change the world in a way that is meaningful to you. People like you. People who will make you feel less alone… Kind of like this:
That’s exactly what happened in my deployment to Puerto Rico. I met some amazing people, and I didn’t feel alone among them. (Yeah, okay, I can be a ghost sometimes, but that’s because I get distracted easily and wander off to save somebody.) They were all a genuinely good bunch of people.
We had a ton of fun on our days off, and they worked very hard on their working days. They cared deeply about the people they were serving, and about each other. On the days that I felt sick (because I managed to get the flu in Puerto Rico, of all places), they checked in on me and made sure I was okay. When the meds for the flu gave me a tremendous headache, I got a text from them at 2am to make sure I was back at the hotel and okay. (What they were doing at 2am in Old San Juan is not for me to judge.)
I made some great friends, like-minded friends. There was the billionaire playboy with all the nice toys… Oh, wait.
No, there was the dude who listened to everyone and had the best advice. The kid who is growing up and making impressions in public health right before our very eyes. The dad who loves his kid and shared some great tips for future parents. The girl from Maryland who is uber cool and super chill. The girl from Atlanta whom I relentlessly teased and took it in stride while helping me get some of the best photographs I’ve taken in my life. And the other girl, the kind-hearted one with nothing but love for the world. Or the doctor who rushes around, putting out fires and mentoring others. Or the kids who play instruments and joke around.
I can go on and on.
Then I fell in love with Puerto Rico and its people. I can’t help but be angry at all the things that have happened to them because of the policies of the United States toward its territories. Puerto Ricans are Americans, and yet there is a huge problem with unemployment, poverty, and lack of access to services. The list is very long, and there is a lot of work to be done here. And a lot of my friends will be here to help get that work done.
Last night, as we had one last dinner together (picture above), I told them how happy I was to have met them, and that they were all my heroes. I was being honest. They are my heroes. They’re my Batmans, Flashes, Wonder Women, etc. And one of them said that I would be back to some other deployment soon enough.
You know what? I will.
I will because I’m not so alone when I’m out getting to know people, helping them, serving them, telling their story. I’m not so alone when others join me in helping people. And I’m least alone when The Girl comes along as well. Lucky for me, she has an itch to respond to emergencies as well. So here’s to a crazy 2017 that is bound to bring all sorts of shenanigans, and all sorts of other adventures. (I hear cholera in Haiti needs a kick in the ass.)
Oh, and there’s one more thing…
But that’s for another post on another day.
Buenas noches, Puerto Rico… Dondequiera que tú estés.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.