I grew up on an island — linguistically, not geographically — where Yiddish was preserved and prevailed. People from my community venture into the anglophone tide for health care, but the doctors and nurses who treat us often lack ways to connect with their patients.
I remember how health-care providers couldn’t wrap their heads around why a woman would be uncomfortable removing her headdress during a routine physical exam, or why the father of a sick child may insist on consulting his rabbi before pursuing treatment.
I feel so conflicted when observing the Hasidic community’s devastating COVID-19 situation. I find it appalling that, before people started getting sick, rabbinical authorities recommended that synagogues, ritual bathhouses and schools remain open long after health officials advised them to close. Religious leaders openly guided their congregations to defy social-distancing orders.
While NYC’s rate of positive tests is under 20 percent of the population, Kiryas Joel’s are well over 50 percent.
I’ve spent the past few months pleading with family and friends to stay home. My mom doesn’t speak a word of English, only Yiddish, and she has never opened a computer in her life. It was hard for her to understand why she couldn’t have a big Passover seder.
I did my best to explain science in Yiddish and to describe what a quarantine means and symptoms to look out for.
Before people they knew actually got sick — when police and firefighters were breaking up Orthodox weddings and funerals in Brooklyn — few in the community took me or the coronavirus seriously. They had to learn the hard way, by mourning people who were dying. Half of my family has tested positive, but they’re recovering.
But the truth is, I’ve seen people not social distancing everywhere. I’ve seen it in Queens, where cops were shutting down house parties. But Hasidic people are very visible because of their dress. It’s easy to single them out.
I also work from my home in Ditmas Park, doing telehealth triage for an urgent care clinic in Kiryas Joel. Over the phone, I talk in Yiddish to people who are unable to leave their homes because of the quarantine.
We receive hundreds of calls well into the night. It is my role to inform people that they or their children have COVID-19 and to guide them on care. I have had to tell parents that their 6-month-old baby tested positive and explain to a father of six why he can’t yet return to work to support his family.
Amid all this, I got admitted to nursing school at Johns Hopkins. I didn’t even think I would get in. The list of reasons is long: ex-Hasidic, barely spoke English until I was 15, no basic elementary education. Despite the obstacles, I managed to get my GED and begin freshman year at Wellesley at age 22.
The question of how to pay for more schooling stresses me out. I’m working overtime, saving my $17-an-hour paychecks and even started a GoFundMe.
When I first left Kiryas Joel, the transition wasn’t easy. I had little awareness of secular norms, let alone basic biology. I had no idea who Madeleine Albright was, or Snow White or Donald Trump. It made it difficult and confusing to maintain conversations with people.
My upbringing exposed me to the dangers of cultural disconnects in health care, and to the inequity it begets.
I see how certain communities — the elderly, the homeless, the undocumented, the impoverished, or, in the case of my hometown, people who choose to live outside the secular world — are affected more than others by COVID-19.
I want to work with those communities as well as facilities that are traditionally underserved. I have treated seniors suffering from preventable bedsores. One recent patient hadn’t had his diaper changed for a week.
I sometimes go home pissed off at the negligence.
I’m usually pretty stoic — health-care workers have to be. But in late March, I dealt with so many dead people in one week. That was when EMS had a record 7,000 calls in one day.
The worst was the day I had to rush family members saying goodbye to a man we were transporting to the hospital. They were hanging on, and I was like, ‘We gotta go. We can save this guy.’
It takes something serious for me to actually cry. But that night, I cried for my family, for my patients, for my co-workers, for my hometown, for my community, for my city, for the funerals I won’t attend.
I trained for this, but still never really feel prepared enough.