Second-year medical student Nadia Vazquez shares her experience with COVID-19 with young people in Buffalo in the hopes they will understand the importance of getting vaccinated.

Medical Student Shares COVID Experience With Area Youths

Published July 14, 2021

A Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences medical student who survived COVID-19 recently took part in two virtual meetings to share her story with Buffalo area teens and younger adults.

“I am even more convinced that there is a lot of change that needs to take place in the health care field. Moreover, I am even more excited about being a part of that change. ”
Nadia Vazquez
Medical student
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The meetings, part of the “COVID-19 Community Café Series,” were conducted in early May.

Sponsored by the Confident Girl Mentoring Program, a local mentoring organization, the goal of the series was to provide people in Buffalo ages 16 and older with information about how COVID-19 has been impacting Generation Z.

May Have Had First Symptomatic Case in Buffalo

Nadia Vazquez, a member of the Jacobs School’s Class of 2024, says she first became ill on March 9, 2020, and for a few days thought she had influenza.

“Not until day seven, when I was at urgent care with difficulty breathing, did I realize that I did not have influenza. They tested me for the flu and performed a strep culture. Both were negative. I was then diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia,” she says. “Almost immediately, all the health care personal changed into hazmat suits and advised me that they believed that I had the first symptomatic case of COVID-19 in Buffalo.”

Her diagnosis was not officially confirmed until March 27. There were no rapid tests available at that time.

Vazquez’s symptoms included lethargy, headaches, high temperature, body aches, fast heart rate, difficulty breathing and bilateral pneumonia.  

Debilitating Residual Side Effects Remain

The road back to a return to normalcy has been arduous.

“Fortunately, I am recovering. Unfortunately, I am still recovering,” Vazquez says. “I still suffer from residual side effects, which include fatigue and headaches.”

“The long-term effects of the virus include headaches which are often excruciating and unbearable. Additionally, I still have very high inflammatory cells, which causes me to sporadically become febrile,” she adds. “I am a newly diagnosed insomniac with sleep apnea, and my vision has gotten significantly worse over the past six months.”

Vazquez’s story is especially illuminating. “I didn’t have any preexisting conditions,” she says. “I wasn't traveling and I was healthy. I wanted to tell them my story and help them understand that I thought I was going to die.”

For Vazquez, the scariest part about her illness was seeing how alarmed and concerned her family members were.

“You don’t think about yourself in those moments. You think about all the people in your life,” she says. “It’s not worth them losing you or you losing them, so get the vaccine. The vaccine doesn't scare me, but COVID did and still does.”

“Thankfully, my family is located right here in Buffalo. I was very upset that they were extremely worried about me, but grateful that they were so close by,” Vazquez adds. “Although I felt like I was going to die, I was not afraid of dying. But I was terrified of leaving my family. I worried about what would happen to them if I had not survived.”

Importance of Hearing Public’s Concerns

The two virtual meetings were free and open to participants ages 16 and up.

The events were co-sponsored by Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) Buffalo, the Buffalo Center for Health Equity and two UB organizations: the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and the Community Health Equity Research Institute.

In addition to Vazquez, the events featured:

  • Tiffany Lewis, president and CEO of Confident Girl Mentoring Program
  • James Macleod, youth advocate
  • Stan Martin, director of CAI-REACH Buffalo
  • Timothy F. Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases
  • Devon Patterson, youth organizer
  • Aqeela-Jihaada Thompson, founder of Rise to My Call

Vazquez says she was eager to participate both as an aspiring physician and as a COVID-19 survivor.

“I believe this is important both as a medical student and because of the hesitancy of people, especially minority people, to get the vaccine,” she says. “I wanted to be there and listen to their concerns.”

Making it Priority to Connect With Young People

Vazquez says she believes the virtual meetings went well because it was helpful for young people to ask questions in a safe and comfortable environment.

“Their concerns were answered by experienced persons and experts in the field,” she says. “I had intimate knowledge of what COVID-19 feels like from a patient perspective, and of course, the doctors have the expert provider perspective.”  

Murphy, director of both UB’s CTSI and the Community Health Equity Research Institute, stressed the importance of connecting with young people as the pandemic increasingly impacts these populations.

“Now that the majority of the population over age 65 has been vaccinated, spread of the virus in the community is occurring predominantly among younger people,” he says. “More and more young individuals are being hospitalized and experiencing more severe illness. That is why the Community Health Equity Research Institute, in particular, is now making it a priority to connect with youth, particularly in our underserved communities.”

“We are reaching out to teens and young adults during this continuing pandemic so that they understand the stakes and can share that information with their peers,” Murphy adds.

Pandemic Shined Light on Health Disparities

Vazquez says one of the biggest obstacles to overcome regarding young people’s vaccination hesitancy includes the fallacy they hold about being immortal.

“The fact is that they do not believe that they will die from contracting COVID-19. However, it cannot be overstressed that death is not the only possible outcome of the virus,” she says. “The long-term consequences of this infection can be very debilitating. Additionally, historical health injustices and disparities have added to the skepticism. Only time and the building of trust can combat that intrinsic cynicism.”

Vazquez says the pandemic has unveiled the health disparities that disproportionately and adversely affect people of color.

“These inequities have been ignored and overlooked for generations. In my own experience, I have learned that young minority women are treated differently,” she says. “Frequently, we are overlooked and misunderstood when treated by both nurses and physicians. People are creatures of habit and familiarity. Change and differences are often viewed negatively.”

Vazquez says the fear of the unknown breeds discrimination and discontent.

“We need to understand and appreciate each other better. When I was in the ER with severe COVID symptoms, I was told that the reason my heart rate was so high was due to anxiety,” she says. “All my other symptoms, including chest pain exacerbated by bilateral pneumonia, were ignored.” 

“I am even more convinced that there is a lot of change that needs to take place in the health care field. Moreover, I am even more excited about being a part of that change.”