March 12th, 2020


By: Alyssa Schoonmaker


Do you remember what you did the day before the world ended?

I do.

I sat at a folding table in a grey classroom at an old brick ambulance base at the dead-end of 17th Street. I got to class early that day. Jordan, Taylor, Ally, and I sat close together in our usual spot, no masks in sight, placing bets on when the university would send the doomsday email releasing us from classes for the rest of the semester. As always, the room was sub-arctic: they kept it at 64 degrees there, no matter the season. I stuffed my freezing fingers into the sleeves of my oversized sweatshirt, listening to the hum of the AC and the scream of ambulance sirens as a truck pulled away from the base to save yet another life.

Curtis, our instructor, sat with his feet up on the front desk, clad in khaki as always with a fat wad of tobacco packed in his lower lip. I remember him spending the first 20 minutes of our Basic EMT class teaching us how to wash our hands properly. He joked that this was all we needed to do to prevent the spread of this “little virus”, as he called it.

He said we’d be out of lockdown in two weeks tops: if the government tried keeping us in any longer, there’d be riots. He said that our training would continue as planned: in two months, we’d be nationally registered EMTs.

On March 13th, 2020, I booked a flight home to California. My college courses were moved online indefinitely. The Alabama state EMS office had decided that in-person training was too great a liability: I’d have to learn emergency medicine through a laptop screen rather than in the back of an ambulance. How could virtual simulations ever replace the experience of securing your first IV in the back of a moving van? How would I know what to do when, if, I ever got the chance to be an EMT? My grand plans for a summer of saving lives had seemingly disappeared.

Over the following 12 weeks, I found myself suspended in an alternate reality of sorts. I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom again after 3 years away from my family. I attended Zoom classes each day from the comfort of my couch. Each week brought a new Netflix or Amazon Prime series to watch: Tiger King, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Stranger Things, Ozark- trust me, I could go on for days.

Just like the majority of Americans in 2020, my life was completely upturned. I watched the world atrophy on a TV screen. I watched the death toll climb. I had a mind full of medical knowledge, and no way to apply it. I felt useless.

As June approached, I made a decision. I couldn’t bear to binge another TV series, couldn’t imagine spending an entire Southern California summer aimless and beachless. I booked another flight, back to Alabama. I registered for my national certification test. I needed to get out in the field: I needed to do my part to help a nation in crisis.

My parents weren’t thrilled to hear the news. Fear dominated my last few days in California. Did I really want to live alone for months during a pandemic? Was I ready to take on the responsibility of a medical professional? What if I caught COVID-19? Who would take care of me?

I didn’t necessarily have answers to these questions, but with many hugs and tears, I reassured myself and my family that leaving was necessary. I studied on the plane and passed my test one week later. I became an EMT during the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

It’s been a scary year, but also one of maturation and learning. I saw an opportunity to help and took it, and for that, I am quite proud. Working as a first responder in this climate has not deterred me from a long career in emergency medicine: rather, I feel more prepared than ever to pursue my goal of becoming a doctor.

I still remember March 12th and crave that sense of normalcy, the sort of calming monotony of everyday life that you can only appreciate once it is taken away. But I’ve changed greatly since then– I’ve grown older and smarter and even more eager to take on my future– and for that I am grateful.