Hope in the Dark

By Sabrina Miller

     In the aftermath of the first COVID wave, a question arose; “Where were you when it began?

     In 2020, I was in the top ten percent of my high school class, a varsity athlete, the president of the choir program, and a dual-enrolled sophomore at Valencia Community College in the “Direct Connect” program sponsored by UCF. Despite all this, three months before my graduation, I had a seizure while driving home from school.

     So, where was I when the breaking news about a mysterious sickness began sweeping the nation? Lying in a hospital bed, half-conscious, having just undergone spinal fusion surgery that involved the placement of two metal rods and ten screws into my cervical spine and about a million stitches.

    I had never had a seizure before, and it was completely unprompted. There was nothing that could have been done to prevent it. When I felt the aura of the seizure coming on, I had no idea what was happening, but I knew that something was very, very wrong. I had a friend in my passenger seat that day and my only thoughts were of their safety. I used my very last moments of consciousness to somehow merge through three lanes of traffic off the street and into a parking lot. That’s where I seized and subsequently crashed my car a minute away from my home. Thankfully, my friend walked away with only whiplash. I however, broke four vertebrae in my spine. I didn’t regain full consciousness for a day and a half. I left the hospital eight days later after an invasive surgery, re-learning how to walk, and with a new diagnosis of epilepsy.

     While everyone else had already been hearing about COVID-19, watching the news nervously, and waiting for updates, I was secluded and slowly healing. The first I ever heard of COVID was the message my high school sent the student body saying that classes were indefinitely canceled until the pandemic was under control.

     That message was the final straw. My whole world had been shattered into pieces and looking around I could see no way to ever put them back together. I had lost my identity.

No longer was I a healthy honor student looking forward to graduation, I was now a disabled eighteen-year-old recovering from surgery and stuck in limbo along with the rest of the world.

     Afraid to step outside, afraid to stand too close to a loved one for fear of sickness, fear truly consumed us all.

     Then, a few days before Christmas of 2020, I collapsed in my living room after a family dinner. I was unresponsive and in the worst pain of my life. My family called 911. The paramedics delivered an unthinkable ultimatum. They said they couldn’t guarantee my safety if I didn’t come to the hospital, but because the emergency room was overrun with COVID patients, they couldn’t guarantee the safety of my family if I contracted the virus that was shutting down the world. They put the decision on me. Deliriously, I looked up into the faces of my mom, dad, and older brother, and couldn’t imagine a world in which I exposed them to danger. I rejected the ride to the emergency room and hoped I could make it through the night.

     I am not the only person who had been subjected to these soul-crushing decisions. For the chronically ill and disabled, COVID-19 had become a death sentence. There were no hopeful statistics of recovery for someone with underlying illness and predisposed conditions. There was only the desperation of trying to remain healthy, and the terror of infecting your loved ones. Cloth masks were no longer enough and even double masking with normal medical masks left room for fear. For someone in my position, at an elevated risk of infection and death, I had to layer on N-95 masks, gloves, and keep hand sanitizer on me.

The choice not to go to the emergency room that night was dangerous. By refusing, I had put my life at stake, and yet for my family’s safety, I was willing to sacrifice anything.

     The next day as the pain and delirium continued, my family was luckily able to contact my doctor and have me admitted directly into the hospital, bypassing the dangers of the COVID-filled emergency room.

     Then came a new diagnosis. I had a severe case of a chronic illness called C.Diff. The only place I could have contracted it was from my first stay in the hospital so many months ago. It had been slowly eating away at me all this time, and now at the height of the pandemic, it had destroyed me and left me wasting away in the hospital, yet again. COVID restrictions dictated that only one family member was allowed to visit me, so for the next eight days it was just myself and my mom in my tiny room. On Christmas eve I was alone. On Christmas morning she brought a stocking to the hospital, but I couldn’t bear to open it. I was afraid I was dying and felt that I had stolen my family’s Christmas. I could see my mom’s thinly concealed fear as she silently put the stocking away and held my hand instead.

     The new waves and variants of COVID continued to roll in and consequently my support system was split down the middle. My international family, my Nonna and Zia, were stuck behind Italy’s closed borders as the virus surged through the country and across Europe. The New York Times reported that by Christmas of 2020, “Italy now had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths on the continent.” They would not make it home to celebrate the traditional Italian Christmas, Epiphany, with us.

     Things weren’t much better at home in the United States.

Despite the risks my family and I were enduring, some of my closest friends were still putting off or refusing vaccinations.

     Even with easy access to vaccines through the ability to make online appointments with CVS and Walgreens, many chose not to. As the new year came so did a new variant of the Coronavirus, the Delta Variant. According to Yale Medicine by the start of 2021 Delta was, “accounting for more than 99% of COVID-19 cases (at the time) and leading to an overwhelming increase in hospitalizations in some states.”

     The polarization this created in some of my most cherished friendships and family relationships was unbelievable. I could no longer allow unvaccinated people into my home for fear of my own life and those that lived with me that were also immunocompromised.

The lack of trust in science and compassion for the well-being of others in our communities was astounding.

     Those that were previously healthy and went on to contract COVID and recover, deemed it ‘not so bad’ as the CDC and World Health Organizations were warning. They left no consideration for those that did not have the privilege of strong immune systems and bodily health to ‘bounce back’ from COVID.

In a way, the disabled, chronically ill, and elderly became a forgotten demographic, willing to be overlooked in order to reduce fear of the virus’s severity.

    When I was finally released from the hospital the isolation was suffocating. For many in my situation, there was a feeling of confinement to our homes and endless quarantine. Many people were refusing to wear masks and even to this day many have gone on to decide for themselves that the pandemic is over and take no precautions. The world became like a battle ground for someone like me, navigating new chronic illness and disability. I was surprised by the lack of empathy. Before 2020 I had been in perfect health all my life. I would never have foreseen a future like this for me and yet anyone can develop or sustain a disability at any time. It is the only minority you can suddenly join, and I am not the only person whom this has happened to. Anyone could be affected and yet it seemed as though very few people cared.

     The fear was consuming and lonely. Yet as I sat together with my family, my dad said to me what he often does. Family is forever. In the dark, in the uncertainty and pain, when the fear closes in and nothing is for sure, family remains. I realized that although I was isolated by the pandemic, diagnoses, and illnesses that afflicted me, I was not truly alone.


     Because I was so unwell, I had been forced to resign from my job as a part time teacher and tutor. Despite this, I continued my community college classes from the hospital and my bed. When my Associates of Arts Degree was sent to me in the mail, I held it in my hands like a badge of honor. It was proof that fear didn’t own me, proof that I was strong and resilient. It ignited a tiny ember of hope in my chest that told me that I couldn’t give up yet. I had to see my goals through. And so, with the key that my AA degree provided, I began the process of transferring into the 2021 UCF Fall semester. Because of the pandemic, it was a difficult process and it felt like a miracle when everything was finalized.

     I was officially a student at the University of Central Florida. The college my father was an alumnus of, and my brother was a senior at, my hometown university I’d wanted to attend for years. It didn’t matter that I still had serious hurdles to jump over regarding my health, that I was still sick, or that in some ways I was still afraid. The hardest part was behind me. This fear I could learn to live with, the fear of something new, because it meant that I was moving forward again, that I was living and reaching toward my goals, one step at a time.

     During the darkest times my family pulled me out of the depths. They held me up and never complained about the extra weight. Slowly but surely international restrictions were lifted, and my family was able to travel between Italy and the United States again. COVID was still in the air, but I felt as though I could breathe again.

When I began walking on my own again, the UCF community welcomed me with open arms.

     One day, I hope I won’t just be walking through campus, but running toward graduation.

     Many students my age deal with big feelings like fear and anxiety by isolating themselves. They pull away from family, friends, and the support systems that can help them the most. I am grateful to have learned a difficult lesson early on. Embrace the love you receive and rely on the strength and abilities of those you trust.

Whether your family is overseas like mine, a couple states away, or down the road, make the effort to extend your hands to them and trust that they will lend you their support and compassion.

     Treat your neighbors and community as your family as well; make an effort to stay updated with vaccinations and continue wearing masks indoors to protect the people around you that may be more vulnerable and afraid.

     After everything, one of my favorite sayings comes to mind.

Finché C’É Vita C’É Speranza.

In Italian it means, “While there’s life, there’s hope.”


     Life can be hard and vicious and unfair, but if there is life, if you are alive, there will always be hope for better days.