Longing for the Old Normal
By Jennifer Wooliscroft
Empty subways, new mothers battling Covid-19, constant anxiety. Mount Sinai nurse Paulina Flint De Castro ’02 explains how the people of New York City are coping with a health crisis.
The squealing wheels of New York City’s Q train are jarring on a good day. But today, Paulina Flint de Castro, grocery bags dangling from her wrists, longed for the noise like an old song.
Descending the stairs of the once-bustling 96th Street subway station, the solitude is unnerving, especially after the din of Mount Sinai Hospital. A nurse during a pandemic, she’s grown accustomed to the wide berth she gets on the subway platform when people notice her scrubs. A city not known for outward displays of warmth, among the few New Yorkers scurrying between green grocers and coffee shops, the atmosphere is tinged with palpable, low-grade anxiety.
Yet, the desolation of the city’s streets during the height of sheltering in place efforts contrast with the turmoil inside its hospitals. With Covid-19, there are seemingly unending numbers of severely ill patients. While she doesn’t work in the Emergency Department, Flint De Castro knows its intensity. Anxious nurses wonder how much to gown up. She says you’ll see medical personnel in a Plexiglas face shield, a surgical mask, and an N95 mask—even in Covid-negative areas—“just to be on the safe side.”
While Mount Sinai maintained a mostly adequate supply of personal protective gear, at the height of the crisis, reusing face shields and N95s was common practice. “You’re willing to put in the long hours,” she says. “You’re exhausted, you’ve barely eaten your lunch, caught your breath, or gone to the bathroom. But now? People are risking their lives for their jobs.”
As a post-partum nurse and lactation consultant, Flint De Castro helps mothers successfully breastfeed their newborns. But with Covid-19, her shifts run the gamut between the regular, post-partum floors and the segregated, Covid-positive floors.
A recent patient included a mother of twins recovering from a Cesarean Section and Covid-19. “All I could think was, ‘how you are dealing right now?”’ she asks, the mother already nauseous from an epidural, on top of queasiness from the virus. Flint De Castro also feels for the partners and spouses, who until only recently could be present for labor and delivery. “Mothers have a profound hormonal and evolutionary drive to bond with their child, which is one thing. But giving birth alone is just painful for everybody.”
Her journey to the epicenter of the US Covid-19 global pandemic began in California. The 2002 alumna’s broad-ranging interests—she studied sociology, environmental studies, and ethnic studies—would ultimately lead to public health nursing. “It’s like you’re creating this soup and, over time, I just kept adding ingredients—it’s important to follow your impulses and interests,” she says.
Flint De Castro also developed an abiding social consciousness inspired by the teachings of St. Ignatius and of liberation theology, which encourages civic engagement as an expression of faith. An active participant in the Santa Clara Community Action Program (SCCAP), which addresses social issues in and around the campus community, Flint De Castro helped organize a range of campaigns and actions, including advocating for fair trade which resulted in Santa Clara’s dining halls serving ethically-sourced coffee.
Back in college she had a proverb tacked to her wall. “The central Chinese character was made up of two parts: crisis and opportunity. In every crisis, how do you find the opportunities? How do you find the lessons?” she asks. Guided by her Buddhist beliefs, the notion of right livelihood—choosing an occupation that is honest, ethical, and does not harm others—resonates deeply for Flint De Castro.
It inspires her to be fully present, especially for those who are suffering. In return, it also underscores the necessity of self-care, especially under such trying circumstances.
The pandemic also infuses the simplest of everyday tasks—grocery shopping, doctor visits, or taking a bus—with a fraught and uneasy energy. But she’s reluctant to focus on the personal inconveniences, given the strain her colleagues in the ER are facing. Or worse, the homeless endlessly riding the city’s buses and trains because there is nowhere else to go.
The train Flint De Castro was awaiting never came. New York City’s subways now run in fits and starts, and cancellations are the norm. She made her way back up to street level as passengerless taxis whizzed by, drivers spooked by her scrubs. Luckily, a cabbie slows and, placing her grocery bags on the backseat, edges toward Brooklyn, and home.