At the beginning of last winter break, I was relishing in the fact that I had just completed my first semester of dental school and was looking forward to three weeks of school-free bliss. My sister Erin, a pharmacy student at the University of Colorado, was busy studying for her finals, which overlapped with my first week of break. I remember going into her room giddy to be done with school, and her playfully telling me to “Get out of my room with your break-y self!” Once she was done, we had plans to head out to Mexico for a couple weeks of sun bathing and relaxation with our parents.
A week later, my entire life had been turned upside down. My little sister, lifelong roommate, and best friend was gone. She had Cystic Fibrosis. The number 37 was burned into my memory. That is the average life span of a person with CF today. I had always tried to push that number out of my head, but how can you forget something like that? She was only 25.
It all happened so suddenly. It didn’t feel real. She was just here. After the shock came the realization that school would be starting again in a week and a half. I knew I didn’t want to put my education on hold, but I wasn’t sure how I would be able to focus when she was all I could think of. Before school had even started again, I felt overwhelming support from my classmates. They messaged, texted, sent flowers, and some came over to see how I was doing. It was amazing to me how the love and support from people I didn’t know six months before gave me such assurance that I wasn’t alone going forward. Her memorial was held at the school, and people from my class filled the back of the room. Some of my classmates had met her, and some had not, but so many of them were there. It meant a lot to me and my family, and I will always remember it.
Before I started dental school, I had been out of college for three years and didn’t see friends on a regular basis. Erin and I had moved to Denver the year before when she started pharmacy school, and she joked that she was excited for me to start school so “she wouldn’t have to be the center of my social life.” It was true. I often think about how much harder losing her would have been without these friends. I would have felt so alone. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever faced, and continue to face, but having so much support during the most difficult days of my life helped me adjust to my new reality.
When classes started up again, the school was very accommodating and ensured me that if I ever needed more time or to take a day off, to just let them know. But dental school doesn’t slow down for you. You have to take every test and complete every assignment at some point, so pushing things back is just using borrowed time. With this must-keep-going mentality, it’s hard to know whether you are hurting yourself by not taking enough time to process, or if the busy schedule helps alleviate the sadness by retaining your focus. I think it’s some of both. Although dental school seems like our entire lives sometimes, many of us have real life struggles we must face during an already stressful time.
Finding positivity and motivation after such a life changing event requires not only support from others but strength within yourself. One of the most amazing things about Erin was that despite the fact that she had a chronic and sometimes debilitating disease, she never complained and never used it as an excuse. She went to doctor’s appointments regularly, had cabinets full of medications, and spent time every day managing her health. She was also forced to face the reality of what living with a chronic and fatal disease meant for her future. While dealing with all of this, she continued to pursue her education and excelled in pharmacy school. She was witty, insightful, and incredibly smart. Only those who knew her well were aware she had Cystic Fibrosis. She is the one who gives me my inner strength and reminds me that even the most difficult challenges do not justify self-pity and stagnation.
Jennifer Terrio is a second year dental student at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. She graduated from Colorado State University where she majored in Nutrition and Food Science. She enjoys skiing, eating at Torchy’s Tacos, and flossing twice a day.