2020 And Its Contagious Lessons

Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii President Dr. Marel Ver (right) with member Jasmine Padamada (left).

by Hieu Phung Nguyen

2021 is a whole new and exciting year everyone has been anticipating for. With the spirit of the New Year, everyone began coming up with resolutions and goals while reflecting on the previous year.

However, reflecting on 2020 had become more contemplative than ever. It was a year full of lessons that we all could learn from. Each of us had a fair share during this pandemic. We all had unforgettable memories; some of which, we wished not to remember. Even though 2020 was the year we faced many losses, heartaches, and feelings of hopelessness, it gave me new perspectives and lessons that changed my life forever.

The first lesson I learned during this pandemic was the value of money. As COVID-19 became progressively worse, schools and businesses started shutting down, people lost their jobs, and healthcare workers scrambled to find ways to deal with a shortage of supplies. COVID-19 appeared, put its sharpest knife in everyone’s pocket, and ripped it all open; some lost a bit, some lost it all.

Although I was very fortunate to still have a job during the pandemic, it wasn’t the same case for my parents and many other Americans. As “standing still” comes with a cost, the phrase “another day, another dollar” took on a whole new meaning as if they were wasting every day of their lives. Rather than enjoying the time off, they were stressing over not having a steady source of income, paying bills and losing medical coverage. 2020 revealed our fragile economic system and how it perpetuated social stigmas against certain occupations. There was no such thing as a luxurious or cowardly job. When you were being quarantined or isolated, what you could do to earn money was all that mattered.

The pandemic added another layer of uncertainty to my life. My father was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer in the middle of the pandemic. I would go to bed at night struggling with the thought, “What if my father couldn’t fight his cancer because of the virus that I brought home from work?”

Being an essential worker at the time did not make me feel so fortunate anymore. Cancer patients, like my father, have weakened immune systems which makes them highly vulnerable to COVID-19. While taking chemotherapy and radiation treatments, being forced to keep a safe distance from family and loved ones had made it especially tough for them.

Quarantine was not an option; it was a matter of life and death. While taking care of my father, I learned that the value of health is so vital and critical. A healthy lifestyle is what we should all strive for. Not only can it help prevent cancers and chronic diseases, but it also prevents catching COVID-19.

When I asked my father if I could share his narrative, I did not want it to be just another cancer story. My father’s journey, like any other cancer patients during the pandemic, would be immensely different if COVID-19 was not in the picture. Instead, I wanted his story to encourage people to take this virus more seriously.

As I scrolled through social media, I was disappointed to see many of my friends taking advantage of their health and youth just because they are more likely to survive the pandemic than the older and more vulnerable generation. With the lack of empathy towards other people’s lives, many young adults were willing to take the risk despite the high number of COVID-19 death tolls announced daily. I was furious, but left feeling so helpless because there was little that I could do for them to change.

While I was coping with the situation, the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii (PMAH) became my light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Due to the increasing number of positive cases among young adults, PMAH were looking for students who would educate and encourage their peers to practice COVID-19’s safety guidelines.

I was inspired by the quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” So, with PMAH’s support and encouragement, I joined their fight against COVID-19. Through PMAH Outreach’s community projects, I’ve learned that kindness is prevailing even in uncertain times.

Young adults participated in our COVID-19 Art and Video contest to share their quarantine experiences. Families donated their children’s clothes and toys to make the holidays special for kids living in homeless shelters. Most recently, different organizations collaboratively organized a community event where I’ve seen people from all walks of life coming together for a good cause: to donate blood along to join Be the Match’s National Registry, a non-profit organization that matches bone marrow donors to a patient in need.

These acts of kindness truly made the world a safer and happier place. Kindness can be rare during times of uncertainty, but it is the only contagion that we want to keep spreading.

Among those projects, the most memorable one we have done so far was coordinating a Blood Donation and Bone Marrow Registry Drive. This is where I met Pat, whose encounter keeps me wide awake at night.

It was a Saturday morning at the event. Beside the Be the Match Hawaii booth, there was this happy-go-lucky gentleman named Pat. He was full of energy and constantly engaging with donors. As I observed him, I noticed that he has this charismatic ability to make people comfortable around him. I thought he was a recently matched patient who came to encourage others to join the registry.

Little did I know, Pat is a current waitlisted patient who has been diagnosed with Myelodysplasia, a type of cancer, also known as a “bone marrow failure disorder.” With about two years left to live (one of which was while he was on the national registry), he is in dire need of a blood stem cell or marrow transplant.

While talking to Be the Match Hawaii representative, I have learned that the odds of being matched with a searching patient is 1 in 430. Therefore, even with millions of people on the registry, it is rare for many patients to find a genetic match.

Pat’s story stayed in my mind ever since, and I could not help but share my experience with others in hopes of getting more young adults, like myself, involved. I got swabbed and was added to the Be the Match Registry shortly after. I joined because I have learned that I could possibly give someone a second chance at life. There are so many people looking for a match, and you or I could be the only cure for a person with a life-threatening disease.

From a year full of uncertainty, fear, and isolation to a year full of eye-opening experiences, learning, and realizing what’s really important, the past year have truly been special.

2020 was not just a bad year. It was more like a roller coaster with both ups and downs rather than a steep decline. We have passed the old year with joy and optimism for a better start. 2020 taught us that life has many sudden turns, and we don’t know what tomorrow will be like.

Therefore, we should live so that each passing moment has its value: to live with intention and purpose. We have learned to rise to challenges and made the most out of it. In return, we became stronger and more capable than who we were before.  Make your new year’s resolution a commitment to helping others, staying inspired, and continuing to spread kindness.

HIEU PHUNG NGUYEN was born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam and a University of Hawaii at Manoa Biochemistry graduate who aspires to be a physician. Inspired by the people and its culture, she joined the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii Outreach and developed a passion for organizing community projects. With her best friend Jasmine, Nguyen manages a book club where she fell in love with lit

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