by Emilee Kain, Marian Catholic High School Class of 2021

I often think about all the “lasts” that I failed to realize I was experiencing before the COVID-19 pandemic redefined normalcy.

The last time cheering on my high school football team, the last time sitting in a full classroom with my peers, the last time hugging my friends in the halls or even seeing them face to face: all of those lasts came prematurely, before I was ready to realize the weight of the moment.

I still kick myself for not appreciating the blessing of normalcy, for failing to take advantage of the gift of ordinary companionship. I remember my last normal day of school before COVID-19 shut down my high school. Fittingly, the day was Friday the 13th. I was in my fourth-period AP Seminar class, and my peers and I made jokes about getting to miss school following the announcement that we would be transitioning to e-learning for two weeks.

We, of course, did not know that two weeks would turn into two months, that two months would turn into a full year, that our school year was over before it even began. What we thought was essentially a two-week snow day turned into a year-long lifestyle change that left us desperate for the school day we once complained about. I did not know it at the time, but March 13, 2020, was the last time I would see many of my classmates before our graduation.

I am the oldest of five children, and completing my schoolwork at home alongside four other individuals was a transition that never got easier. The street outside my house was eerily empty, and time began to change shape as each bland day blended into the next. From helping my younger siblings with their homework to battling an overwhelmed WiFi signal, I quickly found myself mentally exhausted.

I am an interactive learner who thrives in a seminar-style setting, an environment that could not be farther from the disengaged nature of e-learning. In addition to the difficult transition in the classroom, I also struggled without a physical outlet; my varsity softball season was canceled, and I missed the sport and my teammates more than anything. Throughout the entire ending of my junior year, I felt off-balance, as if a rug had been pulled out from under me, and I could not seem to find my footing.

My senior year improved, as my school instated a hybrid learning system in which I could learn in-person two days a week, but I still sorely missed the companionship I had taken for granted prior to the pandemic. I was terrified that, if I hung out with friends or left my house unnecessarily, I would make others or even my family sick. This nauseating, ever-present fear was the greatest challenge I faced during the pandemic.

However, although I faced difficulties during the quarantine, the reality is that I was lucky. I was lucky enough to attend a school that could technologically accomodate a rapidly changing academic landscape. I was lucky enough to have been spared illness and the loss of loved ones. Most notably, I was lucky enough to have had access to affordable medical care whenever I needed it. I was lucky—when so many others were not.

That realization is perhaps the biggest change the coronavirus pandemic elicited in me, as the pandemic forced me to acknowledge the previously overlooked fundamental inadequacies present in our current healthcare system. Amongst the entanglement of feelings of regret, sadness and nostalgia, another feeling began to emerge: anger. I was—and still am—angry that not all people have consistent, affordable access to quality healthcare, and I spent much of the pandemic researching this issue. I quickly realized that I want to dedicate my collegiate years and career to finding sustainable solutions to the American healthcare model so that no individual is deprived of medical care, especially in times of crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned my high school experience on its head and deprived me of valuable interpersonal relationships, but it also opened my eyes to systemic issues and sharpened my career focus. The pandemic created within me a profound sense of compassion that exceeds the boundaries of my personal relationships, as well as a rugged determination to attack the problem of healthcare inequality head-on.

It is true that COVID-19 catalyzed an untimely series of “lasts,” but I have since come to redefine “last” as something far more important than a high school football game: the last time allowing healthcare inequality to go unnoticed and unchallenged.