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From Spain: US educator says how the world is coping with COVID-19 reminds her of Houston during Hurricane Harvey

Isabella Zamora
Isabella Zamora (KPRC)

By Isabella Zamora

Blog entry 4: Harvey vs. COVID-19

Hurricane Harvey

Houstonians have experienced their fair share of natural disasters. Growing up, I remember Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike. I remember staying at home with my sister and mom while my father, working in television at the time, was in the field bringing news into the homes of Houston residents.

I was an adult living with my sister when Hurricane Harvey devastated our city. We prepared the same way we always did. However, this time was a little different for me. This time, I was one of the “essential workers” working in an Emergency Department (“ED”) in the Heights. My new preparation plan included coordinating alternate routes to the hospital (in the event of inevitable flooding because, well, it’s Houston).

The days following Hurricane Harvey were a chaotic blur. In the midst of all that chaos, I remember a nearby restaurant brought food to feed the entire ED team. I remember a family dropped off homemade cookies with a handmade card from their children to say “Thank You.” I remember a man donated his coffee maker telling us “I don’t have power at home anyway. You need it more than I do.”

Hurricane Harvey was a major blow to the city of Houston, but the community grew stronger because of it. Houstonians were helping save their neighbors from floodwaters and hundreds of people jumped into action to help at shelters across the city. Hurricane Harvey had no bias for who was affected by its strong winds and floodwaters. Houstonians of all social classes and backgrounds were displaced and the city rallied around their communities to help families get back on their feet.

If you’re from Houston, you’re really proud of it. We’re known to almost obnoxiously “rep our city” any chance we get. That pride we have for Houston only grew after Hurricane Harvey. We are stronger, today, because of it.

COVID-19

As news of COVID-19 escalated in Madrid and when the city-wide lockdown was implemented, it felt oddly familiar to bracing for a hurricane back in Texas. I quickly realized the storm that is COVID-19 was going to be a very different kind of disaster.

I am still in Madrid, a city that became the epicenter of COVID-19 two weeks after its first confirmed patient. Infection cases continue to rise and the number of deaths are reaching records highs every day. I’m confined to my apartment for what was originally 15 days (just recently extended to April 11) and there is no sign of when the storm will pass.

The difference between Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 is that it’s not just affecting one community. The literal definition of a pandemic is “prevalent over a whole country or the world.” COVID-19, like a natural disaster, has no bias. Anyone and everyone is susceptible to its wrath.

Already we have seen the world come together, the way Houston has in times of disaster. I feel the strength of Madrid fighting together at 8 p.m. every day when not just my street, but all of Spain, stands out on their terraces clapping and cheering for those on the front lines. I feel the strength of the world when I see physicians from Cuba walking off planes to help those in Italy. I get a profound sense of unity as I read about schools distributing food to children who depended on them for meals and when I see celebrities perform free concerts from home to entertain the masses in self-quarantine.

We Are In This Together

In times of crisis, people come together. This time it’s not just Houston, it’s not just Madrid — it’s the world. The entire world is in this together even as we are physically isolated from our communities. It’s time to show the same strength and resilience I saw after Hurricane Harvey, across the world in this fight against COVID-19. The world may all be “social distancing” but we have never been closer. I keep reminding myself of a tweet from astronaut Scott Kelly saying: “We are all seeing now just how interconnected we are. What we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. We can prevail if we work together.”


Blog entry 3: My five stages of lockdown

By Isabella Zamora

It’s been approximately ten days of complete lockdown in Madrid. Ten days of social interactions solely from my apartment terrace and the trek from the kitchen to the living room being my longest venture. Imagine being on house arrest. This experience much resembles what I would imagine it’s like wearing an ankle monitor. I have experienced waves of emotions so much so that I feel physically exhausted. It’s impossible to prepare yourself for this rollercoaster.

Stage 1: Content

I spent my last day before lockdown in the park lounging in the sun. I laid in the grass listening to the birds and watching dogs chase each other. I was taking mental notes of every detail in the “outside world” and storing them away to remember during the next fifteen days inside.

I left the park that day feeling full. Full from the sunshine, full from the the feeling of togetherness (while still social distancing), and full from the exorbitant amount of picnic snacks my roommate, Maddie, packed for us. She was not messing around with our last day of freedom. I felt prepared to spend the next fifteen days confined to my apartment. I had two new books and some beer in the fridge, I was content.

Stage 2: Denial

The first few days of lockdown were seemingly uneventful. There was a lot of Netflix, reading, card games, and FaceTime with family and friends. I remember thinking, “I can handle this.” I was feeling optimistic and confident my mental health would stay strong. It simply felt like a lazy weekend, if I didn’t think about it too much. When I did think about it though, the realization of how many days left in lockdown made me feel like an elephant was stepping on my chest.

Stage 3: Anxiety

The news of a global level 4 travel advisory triggered another wave of friends to leave Madrid. The fear of Spain’s situation getting much worse before it got better was also a strong motivator. There are predictions that 8/10 of Madrid’s residents could be infected with COVID-19 before this is over. I experienced anxiety around my decision to stay. Was it the right choice? I made a mental list of the pros and cons. If I stay here, I could be at risk of getting sick. If I go home, I risk potentially exposing my family.

Stage 4: Hopeless

A feeling of hopelessness began to set in as more friends left Madrid. I was finally coming to terms with how different my life here would be when this is all said and done. Previously planned trips were already being canceled and Sunday taco traditions would not be the same with half the group missing.

It broke my heart thinking of my friends who had to pack up their lives without having the chance to give this beautiful city a proper goodbye.

Stage 5: New Hope

Calle de Gaztambide social hour happens every night at 8 p.m. - without fail. There are some nights more lively than others yet still, my roommates and I stop what we’re doing every evening. We always join the neighborhood in applause and cheers to honor those still working hard while we are at home.

The street had been quieter than usual the last couple days and I feared the morale was fading amongst our new friends. Tonight though, everyone was out again with a renewed energy. New hope, if you will. Perhaps I was not the only one who had needed a mental break.

The clapping slowed as the music ramped up and the usual song requests were hollered out. Tonight however, there was a special request. On the balcony across the way, it was someone’s birthday and before I knew it, the entire street was singing “Cumpleaños Feliz.” The birthday boy blowing out a scented candle to make his wish.

We left our terraces calling out “hasta mañana!” as always and with that I felt a new strength to tackle the next half of lockdown. Although we still have a long road ahead, reminiscing on times before lockdown is confirmation that we have created irreplaceable memories here and gives me hope we will make new ones when this is all over.

About Isabella Zamora

Isabella Zamora is a born and raised Houstonian currently living in Madrid, Spain working as a Language and Culture Assistant with the Spanish Ministry of Education. Isabella is a graduate of S. P. Waltrip HS located in Northwest Houston and of the University of St. Thomas. While completing a BA in Psychology she committed four years working as a medical scribe in Houston area Emergency Departments. Isabella decided to move to Spain for the cultural immersion and as a gap period before returning to the US to pursue a career in medicine. She intends to use her experiences abroad to be a well-rounded and globally aware provider in a city as international as Houston. Until a week ago Isabella was working in the classroom with students in an English-language program but schools are not scheduled to open again until April, or until further notice. She is currently on lockdown in her apartment in the city center of Madrid for a least 15 days.


Blog entry 2: This is how I’m supporting my comrades in the medical profession today

By Isabella Zamora

I have had a lot of time to reflect on my role during this pandemic. Government mandated lockdowns have that effect. I realized the most difficult part of this entire experience, for me, is wishing I could contribute more to the fight in treating coronavirus here in Spain.

While completing my undergraduate degree, I was admitted to an “International Pre-Health Immersion” study abroad program in Costa Rica. I shadowed physicians, studied in the cadaver labs, and observed my first surgery. I was absolutely hooked.

I returned to Houston and accepted a position as a medical scribe in the emergency department (ED) in the Greater Heights area. In this position, I worked alongside physicians to update medical charts with speed and accuracy. I was lucky to work alongside individuals who were great teachers and have become my mentors in more aspects than just medicine.

During my four years in the ED, I worked through critical times in Houston including the Memorial Day flood in 2015, the Tax Day flood in 2016, and of course, Hurricane Harvey in 2017. This is not the kind of work you can do from home.

COVID-19, on the other hand, is different from a flood or a hurricane. Instead of evading the dangers of the natural disasters in the outside world, providers are in as much risk as the patients they are treating. I worry about medical personnel who put themselves in harm’s way every day during this pandemic. I worry my former coworkers and physicians across the country will find themselves in a difficult position when supplies become limited. This is the reality that Spain and Italy are facing today.

While teaching has been a rewarding experience, being away from the hospital during this crisis has been hard for me. If I could help in hospitals here, I would. I find a bit of comfort in reminding myself I am doing what I can to aid in preventative measures by staying at home.

I can only imagine what the scene must look like in Spanish hospitals right now. I imagine skipped meals, rushed bathrooms breaks, and extra hours. I imagine missed phone calls from their kids to say goodnight and sleeping in hospital call rooms to recharge before the next shift. I imagine being on foot for several hours before getting a moment alone. Due to required isolation, I imagine physicians and nurses as the only comfort for those who are sick or in their final moments. I’ve witnessed seasoned physicians struggle with this aspect of the job. It simply doesn’t get easier.

A usually mundane trip to the grocery store is considered a “potential risk” and includes hand sanitizer, plastic gloves at the door, and standing in the check out line one meter apart. That’s only 20 minutes of my entire day. Those working in hospitals are at risk in every moment. It is not an option to stay one meter away from their patients. They are giving medications, starting IVs, and comforting at the bedside despite the risks they face.

I’m thinking about the medical professionals across the globe, but especially those here in Spain, who are committed to treating patients infected by COVID-19 with or without proper protection. I’m thinking about their families who also make the sacrifice of missing a caretaker because they are taking care of others. I’m thinking about these professionals isolating themselves to lower the risk of exposure to others after a long shift treating patients. In an article with Business Insider, a nurse, Coral Merino, currently working in Madrid expresses “going to work is like going to war." In Madrid, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is still rising and medical supplies have been decreasing for days.

I’m thousands of miles away from my Houston roots, but we are all still in this together. We must do our part, no matter how small. Staying home to “flatten the curve” is vital and will help emergency rooms tremendously.

For the last five nights the city of Madrid has gathered on their terraces for the “Aplauso Sanitario,” cheering for those who work tirelessly during this time. I may not be working in the ED anymore, but this is how I’m supporting my comrades in the medical profession today.

About Isabella Zamora

Isabella Zamora is a born and raised Houstonian currently living in Madrid, Spain working as a Language and Culture Assistant with the Spanish Ministry of Education. Isabella is a graduate of S. P. Waltrip HS located in Northwest Houston and of the University of St. Thomas. While completing a BA in Psychology she committed four years working as a medical scribe in Houston area Emergency Departments. Isabella decided to move to Spain for the cultural immersion and as a gap period before returning to the US to pursue a career in medicine. She intends to use her experiences abroad to be a well-rounded and globally aware provider in a city as international as Houston. Until a week ago Isabella was working in the classroom with students in an English-language program but schools are not scheduled to open again until April, or until further notice. She is currently on lockdown in her apartment in the city center of Madrid for a least 15 days.


Blog entry 1: What it’s like for a Houston educator living in a country on lockdown

By Isabella Zamora

Monday, March 9: Keep the mask for coronavirus

Monday played out as a normal day for me - teaching in the morning, quick lunch at home before private lessons all afternoon, and then grocery shopping for the week before dinner. There had been buzz for weeks about COVID-19, but no one in Madrid seemed too concerned. Everything was business as usual. In fact, I had just participated in the Madrid International Woman’s Day march the day before with thousands of others marching down Madrid’s main avenues to the city center.

Meanwhile, the scary, and very real, effects of COVID-19 were unfolding in other countries. At this point, things had escalated in Italy, but it was just far enough away that somehow it made it easier to detach ourselves from the severity of the situation.

In school, the vocabulary words for our young students included different tools and accessories used in a doctors office. One of the other teachers jokingly said “Mantener la máscara para el coronavirus” (Keep the mask for coronavirus). We just giggled to each other and moved on. How naive we were.

Come Monday night, while grocery shopping, I noticed more hustle and bustle at my neighborhood market. I pulled out my phone and saw notifications about the Community of Madrid releasing information about school closures for the next 15 days. This was the first sign of things getting “real” and people were starting to prepare. The schools were going to be closed starting Wednesday to begin the “reinforced containment” efforts in the city.

The next seven days were a blur with new information and abrupt city wide changes every hour.

Peruvian passengers wearing protective masks wait at Adolfo Suarez-Barajas international airport on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Spanish authorities closed schools and halted direct flights to and from Italy. Italy is the country with most coronavirus cases in Europe, and Spain this week reported a sharp increase in cases. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Peruvian passengers wearing protective masks wait at Adolfo Suarez-Barajas international airport on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Spanish authorities closed schools and halted direct flights to and from Italy. Italy is the country with most coronavirus cases in Europe, and Spain this week reported a sharp increase in cases. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Tuesday, March 10: There was an anxious energy in the air

I arrived at school for the last day before schools closures and there was an anxious energy in the air. Teachers were discussing the recent news regarding a significant increase in cases of the virus in Madrid since the first known case just two weeks prior. Classrooms were nearly empty due to many parents who decided to keep their children at home. I left school that day hesitantly telling my teachers “hasta luego” because no one really knew when we would be back in school.

Next, I began my preparation for two weeks off. I grabbed a new book and some craft material for the students I tutor outside of school. I figured they might enjoy a little more to do while school was out. Instead, my roommates and I have been the ones making the slime and painting with watercolors because the chance to see my students would never come. Families in Spain were not making any exceptions and immediately limited their interactions with outsiders as much as possible.

Thursday, March 12: Staying in Madrid was an easy choice for me

Rumors began to spread about border closures and travel restrictions being placed on Madrid. At approximately 2 a.m. Madrid time (technically Friday), President Trump announced travel bans from Europe starting Friday. The information was very vague and with fear of not being able to get home, many of my friends packed up their lives within hours, abandoned their apartments, and caught the first flight they could back to the states.

The choice to stay in Madrid was easy for me as there was going to be no outrunning this virus. The situation in Madrid was developing by the hour as more and more cases were confirmed.

A Catholic worshipper using protective gloves prays with a rosary beads at the Santa Maria de Cana parish in Pozuelo de Alarcon, outskirts Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Pope Francis has praised people for their continuing efforts to help vulnerable communities, including the poor and the homeless, amid the coronavirus pandemic. The vast majority of people recover from the COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
A Catholic worshipper using protective gloves prays with a rosary beads at the Santa Maria de Cana parish in Pozuelo de Alarcon, outskirts Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Pope Francis has praised people for their continuing efforts to help vulnerable communities, including the poor and the homeless, amid the coronavirus pandemic. The vast majority of people recover from the COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Friday, March 13: ‘State of Alarm’

The Spanish government announced a “State of Alarm” indicating all bars, restaurants, stores, gyms, cinemas and nearly all other businesses would close for at least 15 days. Grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals would remain in operation and any other activity outside of our home was strongly discouraged. This began the viral campaign to “Quedate en casa” (“Stay home”). An effort to encourage citizens to refrain from being in crowded areas or using public transport. What started as a seemingly “normal” week ended with almost complete lockdown of the entire city of Madrid.

Saturday, March 14: We’re about to start our quarantine

Saturday in Madrid was a beautiful, warm, and sunny day. My roommate Maddie and I “escaped” our apartment and spent hours in the park soaking up as much sun as we could while we still had the chance.

The realization of the impending lockdown was beginning to weigh heavy on our shoulders and was just around the corner. Our neighborhood that is usually bustling with people shopping, walking their dogs, or grabbing drinks with friends was quiet and sidewalks were nearly empty. We walked home as the sun was setting on a gorgeous day and noticed signs on the outside of businesses that read “Volveremos mas con más fuerza” (“We will come back stronger”).

Tomorrow begins the 15 day quarantine. The citizens of Spain have been asked to stay home unless necessary to obtain food or medicine. I sat on my apartment’s small terrace and watched the entrance of a grocery store across the street as people made last minute purchases. The people stood in line spaced apart from each other then filed into the store only a few at a time as to refrain from any close contact in the aisles. There was no panic, no crowds, just a few people in, and a few people out purchasing only what they needed and nothing more.

A closed school in Rivas Vaciamadrid, Spain, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Spain's health minister on Monday announced a sharp spike in coronavirus cases in and around the national capital, Madrid, and said all schools in the region, including kindergartens and universities, will close for two weeks from Wednesday. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
A closed school in Rivas Vaciamadrid, Spain, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Spain's health minister on Monday announced a sharp spike in coronavirus cases in and around the national capital, Madrid, and said all schools in the region, including kindergartens and universities, will close for two weeks from Wednesday. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Monday, March 16: We have become the epicenter of this pandemic

This time last week looked a whole lot different than today. We are only a few days into the 15 day lockdown and there is no way to tell how the world will look when this lockdown is over. The numbers of those needing treatment for COVID-19 in Madrid is still rising. In a week, we have become the epicenter of this pandemic.

I try to focus on just one day at a time now and keep my mind busy with reading and connecting with friends and family back home. I have encouraged my friends to take this seriously and learn from the mistakes I made not taking precautions sooner. I see on social media people joking about quarantine and it can feel infuriating. Ask anyone, I’m really good at taking naps and love a good Netflix binge but when I think about how many days of this lockdown we still have left, it’s suffocating.

A week ago was a normal day for me. I was going to work, making plans with friends and riding the always busy metro to the gym. I had no idea this routine of mine, that can feel somewhat mundane at times, was actually such a privilege. Today, the city of Madrid is closed down and confined to our homes with the risk of being fined by police if caught outside for anything other than food or medicine.

The streets are eerily quiet to the point that having the window open in our living room means our TV or music will echo through the entire street. We had a neighbor complain about noise the night before because playing a card game at our dinner table echoed out the window so much it was disturbing him two floors down. That’s how quiet our streets are now. In a city that hardly sleeps and loves to socialize into the wee hours of the night, it is a ghost town now.

The new social hour for everyone happens around 8 p.m. for us now. At this time all of Spain goes to their terraces to clap and cheer for the medical professionals, grocery store workers and service workers still working during this lockdown. It turns into a sort of dance party on my street with people playing music from their terrace so we can dance and sing. This lasts about 5ive minutes every night and has turned into the absolute highlight of my days. It is an incredible feeling of unity connecting with my neighbors in this way while still physically distant from each other. Today everyone left their terraces yelling “Hasta manana!”.

About Isabella Zamora

Isabella Zamora is a born and raised Houstonian currently living in Madrid, Spain working as a Language and Culture Assistant with the Spanish Ministry of Education. Isabella is a graduate of S. P. Waltrip HS located in Northwest Houston and of the University of St. Thomas. While completing a BA in Psychology she committed four years working as a medical scribe in Houston area Emergency Departments. Isabella decided to move to Spain for the cultural immersion and as a gap period before returning to the US to pursue a career in medicine. She intends to use her experiences abroad to be a well-rounded and globally aware provider in a city as international as Houston. Until a week ago Isabella was working in the classroom with students in an English-language program but schools are not scheduled to open again until April, or until further notice. She is currently on lockdown in her apartment in the city center of Madrid for a least 15 days.