Sprinting Through Puerto Rico

Sprinting Through Puerto Rico

Last summer was nothing short of a sprint. I was alone in Puerto Rico, with few expectations from back home constraining me. My newfound freedom hit me like a truck.

I had a dream internship with the Dengue Branch of the Centers for Disease Control. The branch is the hot zone of the American Zika response, as well as the main field epidemiology unit for a whole host of infectious tropical diseases. I worked hard, full time, and learned from some of the world’s best epidemiologists. This knowledge will be useful in a decade, after a few more degrees and jobs that offer work experience instead of a salary. As the intern – and the youngest person by about ten years – my days were full of doing battle with statistical programming languages for which I had claimed “intermediate” skill but really just meant “I could probably learn this in a few hours if it’ll get me the job.” Other favorite pastimes included blending into walls during meetings and gently reminding my older coworkers of their mortality by missing references to 80’s and 90’s movies.

But working full-time took only 40 hours a week, and the remaining 128 hours consisted of everything but work. I play field hockey at Yale, and during the summer I was in the best shape I’d ever been in. I trained four or five hours daily. Afterwards, I could stay up until 2:00 A.M. any night of the week, salsa dancing in a street in San Juan, going to the university town and playing pool with with my Boriqua counterparts, or sneaking into upscale hotel bars or pool parties. I’d then wake up at six the next day, work out, go to work, train, and do it again. Why rest? Weekends, when late nights blurred into breakfasts and become romps through a cave or waterfall or beach or rainforest, were even longer. I was running a marathon at a sprint pace, hell-bent on not missing a single opportunity to be twenty years old. I started a memo on my phone titled “PR Bucket list.” For each item I crossed out, I added three more.

I spent the most time with my roommate Rona, a twenty-five year old public health graduate student. One of our exploits involved an overnight trip to Vieques, an island off the coast, with a coworker and her boyfriend. A popular destination for Puerto Ricans to vacation, and an out-of-the-way destination for tourists, Vieques is also home to the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay – which happened to be the first item added to my PR Bucket list.

There are a few ways to travel to Vieques. I have heard that the best of these options is by private yacht; a close second is a brief plane flight. My budget, which by that point in the summer consisted of whatever I could scrounge from my parents in the wake of long-gone fellowship funding, did not allow room for either. We opted for the ferry. With about four times as many travelers as ferry tickets daily, the Vieques ferry practically requires that you line up before sunrise to claim your two-dollar ticket to the island. We departed for the hour-long drive to the ferry launch at 4:30 on Saturday morning, strategizing on the way how to divide the labor of waiting in line, parking, finding us all cafecitos, and filling the cooler with Medallas, the ubiquitous $1 local beer that is most often described as “not that bad, really.” Three-fourths of our plan was perfectly executed, but there was a bit of a debacle involving the parking, and we, of course, were the first people denied tickets for the 9:00 am ferry.

Undeterred, we bought 1:00 pm ferry tickets and enjoyed our cafecitos on a beach near the ferry. After a two-hour ferry ride, settling in, and factoring in island time, we arrived at the Vieques beach in time to catch the sun setting and paddle around in the water before the tour.

The tour begins an hour after sunset. You ride in a van along winding paths (calling them roads would be a stretch) through a thick, dark rainforest. You eventually arrive in a small clearing adjacent to a launch site with a mess of kayaks and paddles. At this point, on the edge of the bay, the glowing is pretty unimpressive. Immediately after receiving my kayak and paddle, Rona paddled by on hers, and – no surprise – I took that as a challenge. Racing to catch up to her, passing her, I kept rowing full speed until I was smiling and breathing hard and she was nowhere in sight.

When I finally grew still, it was because my paddle was exploding in light. Any movement in the water caused a million little specks to twinkle, mirroring the brilliant, perfectly clear night sky. Every splash brought the water to life. In the center of the bay, I was surrounded in every direction by living balls of light. In surreal flashes, memories of my life outside of the island – of classes and practice and my numbness to time ticking – seemed to belong to a different person than those of the eight weeks since I’d arrived. I wasn’t really sure who would be leaving.

The morning after the bay, my friends and I rented mopeds to travel more quickly and stylishly around Vieques. With about five minutes of moped experience and naïve invincibility, I felt qualified to drive. With Rona on the back, less than half an hour after renting it, I lost control around a right turn, went too wide, and slammed head-on into a pickup truck.

Wow, I hope nobody saw that.

Hey, that’s not what my leg is supposed to look like.

I wonder if we’ll still make it to the beach today.

I vaguely remember replacing my leg to a position that looked more natural and hearing someone calling for an ambulance. I’d like to say that I worried about Rona in these first few seconds, but it didn’t even cross my mind that she could be hurt. Gabito, my coworker’s boyfriend, carried me from the street to a bench, where my rapidly-swelling leg raised a sense of alarm about training for the upcoming field hockey season, rather than how close I had just come to a much more grave outcome. There was still time to ask Rona, a bit shaken up but thankfully otherwise fine, to take a photo “because it is kind of hilarious how quickly I crashed,” as I put it.

Gabito, the resident non-gringo, accompanied me on the ambulance. In the island’s clinic it was decided, despite my concern about cost and insurance, that I should be air-ambulanced to the mainland. I lay in a stretcher, looking back, my head upside down, my thumbs up, and my smile wide. I then called several relatives, casting about for someone to break the news to my mom for me, since she’d freak out. When this failed, and I had to call her myself. I led with “Hi mom, everything is fine but I was in a bike accident and I hurt my knee a little.” Gabito burst out laughing; at least one person understood the situation. Looking back, I suppose I must have been in pain this whole time, but it wasn’t a priority. After an X-ray showed nothing, the doctor instructed me to take Motrin until the swelling reduced, and I hobbled out on 1.5 legs, telling my companions and myself that I was fine.

I took the next day, a Monday, off of work in order to deal with the air-ambulance-no-diagnosis insurance mess. Tuesday, I went to work, but by Tuesday at lunch, coworkers would look gravely at my swollen purple and black knee and tut. In response, I would throw out a tired joke, “debías haber visto al otro chico.” You should have seen the other guy.

My boss, usually an intense and demanding woman, became more nurturing than I had ever seen her. She implored me to see another doctor. Finally, I relented. As I limped into the ER after work, the receptionist gasped, ¡dios mío! When I mistakenly told the nurse in Spanish that “me falta mi pie” “I am missing my foot,” they considered summoning a psychiatric specialist; another inexplicably started to take my temperature; a third checked for a concussion. As I grew more anxious, they agreed that I should wait and see the doctor on call.

I was too nervous to call my mom to update her on the latest developments. Moreover, I was too proud to call her just to talk even if my battery would have allowed it. I had missed dinner and, facing the prospect of being in the ER indefinitely, ventured to the CVS next door to buy some comfort snacks and a soda. Telling myself everything was fine, I sat back down to wait for my turn. I opened my soda and it exploded all over me. I lost it, sobbing.

The waiting room was the first time I recall my leg hurting. Alone, unable to walk, struggling to communicate with nurses what was wrong, and covered in Diet Coke, I was like a kid at the store who just looked up to realize that her parents were nowhere in sight.

The doctor finally arrived. I recounted what had happened, but this time my throat was stinging and tears blurred my vision. He explained in comforting English that, while he wasn’t a specialist and couldn’t say what was wrong with my knee, he was worried about a blood clot in my leg. I would be staying overnight, receiving anticoagulant shots and muscle relaxers, and I would be first in line in the morning for an ultrasound of my leg to be cleared to fly. I was to go home.

That night, through thin curtains, I listened to the mundane conversations of the other patients’ families. I began to realize that not just my summer, but my life, had shifted completely. I could run a 50-meter shuttle in under eleven seconds. I could hold my own at after-work Wednesday happy hours with people ten years my senior. I went to Monday hip-hop nights at La Respuesta after hockey practice with the Puerto Rican national team, without missing a beat that night or the next day. But now I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom.

The next morning, I was cleared for travel by an ultrasound. My mother was on her way to the airport to take me home. The doctors had splinted my leg, I had gone home from the hospital, and my roommate brought my dinner. A friend visited, and I donned my happy-go-lucky façade, but cracks were apparent to everyone. My mom arrived, and the lost kid was reunited. She packed me up, brought me home. I had an MRI, CT scan, and another X-ray before my orthopedic surgeon informed me that I had fully torn apart my MCL and PCL, broken my tibia, and damaged my ACL.  In other words, half of my knee was gone. I would require surgery and be unable to walk for two months. Running? Maybe in four.

The following weeks have slipped through my fingers; on pause, I watch everyone else carry on. Each time I watch my team practice or play, as happy as I am for their successful season and the joy they take in playing, I’m back to the waiting room and covered in Diet Coke. Now, I do all my therapy exercises until I’m blue in the face, but after the requisite sets they become exercises in futility. Some wounds improve only with time, and I never did learn to be patient. I can uncage the person from this past summer only when I go to the gym. I can only do upper-body lifts, but for an hour, five days a week, I get to look at my limitations and tell them to screw off – just like I did every morning, night, and weekend in Puerto Rico. I’m making gradual progress – every day the weights go up and I walk a little bit more upright. I credit the resilience to the island – a place where the only thing that separated me from experiences was how badly I wanted them.