Expat Life: When tragedy hits

Feb 22, 2021

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By Rachel DeSalvo

What do you do when tragedy hits while you are thousands of miles away?

What do you do when tragedy hits while you are thousands of miles away? This is a question I receive all the time from worried pre-pats. For me, the answer has always been simple: Buy a plane ticket and fly home. But what happens when the tragedy hits during a global pandemic?

Mom and dad's house by Rachel DeSalvo

Mom and dad’s house (Photo by Rachel DeSalvo)

My father battled Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma three years before the pandemic. Back then, I could travel to visit him, meet his doctors, and see him recover after six months of treatment. About six months after COVID hit the world, we learned that my father’s cancer was slowly creeping back. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treatable, but most times, it lingers. But unlike his first bout of cancer three years before COVID, this time I couldn’t travel to visit him and my mom. Instead, my parents and I increased our weekly video chat sessions from once a week to four times a week. That eased some of my worries about my father’s health. I attended my dad’s medical appointments via iPad. I read off a list of questions to which the doctor patiently answered.

Being thousands of miles away without the option to visit when this tragedy hit again made me feel worried, powerless, and depressed. Many nights while lying in bed, my peace was punctuated by sudden hiccups of cries as my cat gently pressed his soft paws on my cheeks, almost wiping away my tears.

Around this time, I received a text message from my mother saying “we need to talk.” I feared the worst was happening to my father. This time, it was my older brother. He had suddenly passed away.

I wanted to hop on the first plane to New Jersey, but with COVID-19 cases increasing around the world and exploding in the United States, I couldn’t travel in order to be with my grieving parents. But because of my father’s cancer and autoimmune disease, I couldn’t take the risk of becoming infected and passing it on to him.

We can’t stop time, sickness, aging, or death so it’s important to have a plan by Rachel DeSalvo

We can’t stop time, sickness, aging, or death so it’s important to have a plan (Photo by Rachel DeSalvo)

I wanted desperately to be with my parents and comfort my mother, who found my brother lying in his apartment. I wanted desperately to tell my dad jokes during his treatments to make the four endless hours of treatment go by quicker. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do any of these things.

Thankfully, hope is on the horizon. My folks are scheduled to receive their vaccinations within the month. They are hoping to visit me in Ecuador since they don’t want me to fly for fear that I may pick up COVID.

We can’t stop time, sickness, aging, or death; therefore, it’s important to have a plan in place where possible. Unfortunately, COVID-19 canceled my plans and kept me from being with the people I love most when tragedy hit.

Editor’s Note:  TCI is a full-service provider of expat education and transition services. Our private platform allows our global expat community and our Expat Alliance of in-country expats and experts to interact so that all can successfully embrace the expat experience. Learn More…


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