Whenever someone asks me where I grew up, I always say Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in northern Brooklyn.
But some of my earliest memories are from Canarsie, another Brooklyn neighborhood, where my mother rented an apartment in a two-family home. I was only 2 at the time, but I remember summer evenings chasing ice cream trucks and playing in the backyard with the landlord’s two children.
I can also recall that things took a turn for me that winter. I developed a bad cough, and I remember complaining that my “belly felt hot,” and spending nights sweaty and unable to sleep. That December, I was diagnosed with bronchitis, a condition that plagued me for the next six years.
What I don’t remember is the constant dampness, or how my mother had to buy buckets to catch the water leaking from the ceiling. Nor do I recall the mold that grew, or how my mother’s eyes became irritated from constantly using bleach to remove it when her pleas to the landlord were ignored. When the first snowfall came and there was no heat, we fled those dreadful conditions. For our health and well-being, my mother moved us to Bushwick before the year ended.
My mother is from Haiti, and after being brought to the U.S. by my great-aunt, she worked as a home health aide. That was my introduction to seeing the art of caring for another person. When there was no one to watch me when I was very young, I would go to work with her. Some of her clients became like grandparents to me and would help me with my homework. Watching my mother care for others taught me that compassionate, personalized care is essential in promoting health.
Today, I work as an oncology nurse on the Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Unit at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Our patients stay for about three or so weeks at a time, so I get to know them well. I learn so much from my patients. If someone is fighting for their life, they have a new perspective on what life really is, and they help me appreciate mine even more. A lot of the patients want to know what’s going on in your life and share their own stories. It’s these human moments that are so rewarding.
I’ve had many other moments in my life that made me want to be the person supporting a patient and their family, whether they are getting the best news of their life or the worst. When I was 19 my grandmother was very sick, and I learned how great NewYork-Presbyterian was. I said to my family, “You know what? People are coming from other countries and other states for care here. We can cross the bridge and we can go to Manhattan.”
NewYork-Presbyterian was the only place that took my family and me seriously, and discovered a blood clot in my grandmother’s lung. My grandmother ended up passing away from a pulmonary embolism, but the compassion and the care were so special. We felt so comforted by the nurses, the medical team, the techs, the clerks — everyone. Everyone takes their role seriously. I was in nursing school at the time and I thought, “This is the place I want to be.”