What to expect when you’re not expecting: Reflections from Boston

“I shouldn’t tell you this, but I don’t even know who our safety captain is,” I told a GHC staff member over the phone as I “sheltered in place” in my boyfriend’s room in Cambridge, MA last Friday.

At our initial orientation at Yale, we were grouped by our placement countries to discuss emergency plans and identify safety captains. Fellows based in Africa diligently discussed contingency plans for civil strife, riots, and natural disasters, already planning where they would hide $100 USD in a safe place should evacuation be necessary. In the US group, I wasn’t the only one checking my phone under the table, feeling like I didn’t have much to worry about it.

Maybe I should have paid a little more attention.

The night before my conversation with Tali, I had received frantic text messages from my friends telling me to stay inside the bar where they knew I was having an early birthday celebration because there was a gunman on the loose from MIT. As the crowd danced to the Motown classics the band played every week, I refreshed my Facebook and Twitter feeds, hoping the hear that it was safe to go out before the T closed for the night. Not wanting to pay for a taxi to go back to the apartment I share with my co-fellows, I walked a few blocks to where my boyfriend lived, watching more cop cars zoom past than I could count and wondering if I should step into the pizza place that was still open on the corner until things calmed down.

When I woke up Friday morning, my phone was dead, so when I turned on the computer to check the time I was shocked to see the subject lines:

“Safe?” “Stay safe!!” “Please stay indoors this morning” “Caution!”

What was going on? I scrolled down a little further. “DO NOT COME TO MEET ME!!!” read the subject line from an email from my program manager, who I had planned to see in an hour.

As anyone with access to the internet knows, Friday, April 19 was a tense day for Boston and the surrounding areas, as police searched for the suspect of the bombings at the Boston Marathon while people huddled inside, mostly glued to the news and trying to make sense of what had happened. I don’t wish to add my perspective to the many eloquent analyses of that week and the senseless loss of life and the incredible strength of Boston.

Instead, I want to comment on what to expect when you are not expecting anything at all, and how even preparation that seems unnecessary can pay off in the end. Thankfully, our first responders and medical professionals were extremely prepared to effectively deal with the unexpected. As Atul Gawande observed in the days following the bombings, Boston hospitals were able to save so many lives because they had learned from the tragedies of the last decade – war, natural disasters, mass shootings. “We’ve learned, and we’ve absorbed. This is not cause for either celebration or satisfaction. That we have come to the state of existence is a great sadness. But it is our great fortune,” he writes.

It’s not just the medical professionals who have learned how to react to disaster – it is all of us. We’ve learned to update each other through social media. We’ve learned to keep some extra food in the house just in case, and I’ve learned to not leave home without my phone charger (sorry, Mom!). Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that I can find support and safety in places I wouldn’t have thought to look for before.

When we talked about safety planning at Yale, I didn’t pay much attention because I figured if something bad ever happened, I would go to my family for help first. I didn’t even think about checking in with GHC. But GHC staff called us within minutes after the events, offering their support to us in Boston, making sure we had everything we needed and being open to talk through a difficult and confusing time. As I received texts and calls from fellows at other placement sites, I truly felt like I was part of a community that would look out for my best interest.

While I’m grateful that none of the Boston fellows were at the marathon when the bombings occurred and that we were all safe, I felt like GHC would have been there for us in every way had anything gone wrong. And I gained a newfound appreciation for building thoughtful communities in which members are committed to each other. That matters everyday, but it especially matters when you aren’t expecting it to at all.

Celebrating our community (and my birthday!) by volunteering to build a fence at a farm the day after the lockdown