Unconvinced that the last six weeks had actually happened, I woke up Saturday morning and immediately rushed to check my phone—surely this had all been some sort of elaborate dream. And yet there were the memories: pictures of us in the French Quarter at night, GroupMe messages to scheme late-night trips to Café du Monde, texts from my coworkers saying they would miss us. Yes, the last six weeks had happened, and yes, they really did feel like a dream.
Perhaps it would have felt less surreal if Hurricane Barry hadn’t ripped us away from the city two weeks short of the official end of the program. Standing in the security line at MSY last Thursday, I had to keep reminding myself that this was really happening. We were actually leaving New Orleans. The toughest part for me was the sudden realization that I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to my coworkers at CrescentCare. I had begun thinking about thank you cards and gifts that I would be giving them on our last day of work, but I instead had to settle for lengthy text messages. Typing these messages from the airport was a deeply upsetting experience for me. I wanted to go back to that big, blue building on Elysian Fields Avenue and tell Rodney and Doreen how much their mentorship meant to me. Words in a little blue bubble just didn’t feel the same.
I mean no exaggeration when I write that interning at CrescentCare was a life-changing experience. I say this as a student who has entirely reevaluated his life and career goals in the past few weeks. As a pre-med student I had naturally considered a career in public health at one point or another, yet I had quickly dismissed these thoughts. “I want to be able to directly help patients,” I probably said. “Public health just isn’t the right field for me.” Contrast this with last night when I was doing some research on graduate public health programs. Where I once saw this field as being defined by suits and desk jobs, this summer taught me that public health work is hands-on and able to impact every part of a community’s health. I leave New Orleans with a career in medicine still decidedly in my sights, but also now understanding that public health will play a key role in what I choose to do next.
To put it short, New Orleans has a lot of problems. Crumbling infrastructure threatens the wellbeing of tens of thousands of residents, a lack of affordable housing options exacerbates an already crippling homeless situation, and the city can’t seem to escape a public health crisis that boasts some of the highest disease transmission rates in the nation. For any other city, this laundry list of problems may seem hopeless, but New Orleans isn’t just any other city.
All around, there are thousands of individuals and organizations actively engaged in building a better New Orleans. I learned this from Alex who is working to build an equitable and reliable public transportation system for the city; from Stacy who strives to end child abuse not in the courtroom but rather in the homes of families; from Andreanecia who vows to continue working until affordable housing is an option for all. Despite the diverse challenges New Orleans has and will continue to face in the coming years, it’s clear that the city is in good hands.
From the day we first moved into Cabra Hall to the time I landed back in Charlotte, this summer was an experience that I am beyond grateful to have participated in. To explore and immerse myself in this city with such amazing friends from Duke was a summer I will always remember. There’s something to be said for a city that routinely floods and yet has a population that will always return. Many returned after Katrina and found their homes in shambles, their lives washed away with the flood waters, and yet for some reason, they moved back to the city. Now, having spent six weeks there, it’s not difficult to understand why. “Unique” doesn’t go far enough to describe New Orleans. The people, the city, the culture—it’s no wonder it all felt like a dream.