PROVIDENCE — Kyle Burgos held his head up high as he walked through the hallways of Hasbro Children’s hospital on Saturday, needing no direction to the hematology and oncology wing he knew so well. He checked in, reporting no COVID-19 symptoms, and walked straight into the exam room. For only a second did he glance over to see his mom there, like always, right beside him.
A cancer survivor, the 17-year-old Providence resident is at high risk for COVID-19. At last, today was the day he and his family had been yearning for. He sat in a chair, and lifted the sleeve of his shirt to receive his first COVID-19 vaccine, at a clinic for at-risk youth hosted by Lifespan.
When was the last time he saw his friends? Sat in a classroom at school? Or hugged his grandmother, who he calls Mamá? He wasn’t sure. But the moments he has craved for more than a year felt closer to him now.
About two years ago, when he was just 15, Burgos developed a growth in his armpit. He didn’t think it was anything, at first. But then there were signs that something was wrong: He couldn’t raise his hand above his head. The lump became painful. Everything just felt different. He was soon diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
“What’s anybody to think when you’re first told that you have cancer?” said Burgos, who lives in Providence. He said he felt like everything he was working toward was about to be robbed from him, and he wondered: “Will I live through this?”
His mom, Ysaura Burgos, took him to every doctor’s appointment and treatment throughout 2019, trips that became so frequent — sometimes multiple trips each week — that she ended up losing her job.
Things seemed to calm down for a while, Burgos said. But just as the pandemic hit Rhode Island in March 2020, Burgos relapsed. The cancer was back. In April 2020, Burgos was admitted into Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and spent a month in the intensive care unit. Due to the hospital’s COVID-19 restrictions, Burgos could only have one visitor at a time. He said his mom never left his side, even with three other teenagers at home.
“I was here 24 hours a day. I was scared that if I left, something would happen,” said Ysaura Burgos.
Burgos said of Ysaura, “She’s my rock. She’s my best friend. That’s my mom.”
A bone marrow transplant at Boston Children’s Hospital in August 2020 was successful, but Burgos said it “knocked out” his immune system, leaving him at high risk if he contracts COVID-19. He hasn’t been around others, hasn’t been able to spend time with his newborn niece. A junior in the automotive technology program at Providence Career & Technical Academy, he hasn’t been able to attend school in-person.
“I’ve felt like a bird whose wings have been clipped off. I just haven’t been able to fly,” said Burgos.
On Saturday, at Hasbro Children’s first clinic for at-risk youth more than 100 people age 16 to 25 received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. For many of them, and their parents, it was a sign of hope during a year of isolation and worry.
Across the hall from Burgos, Ousainou Faal, 18, a University of Rhode Island freshman studying pharmaceuticals, was prepping for his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Faal has sickle cell disease, which causes severe pain in his chest and joints, and he can sometimes have difficulty breathing. He also had a hip replacement in 2019. If he was to contract COVID-19, he would be at high-risk of severe illness, or even death.
“This last year has just been hard. I try to keep myself safe and do everything I’m supposed to. But I thought I would be able to go to college and have fun. It hasn’t been that way,” said Faal, who was born in the U.S., but grew up in Gambia, in West Africa.
Protecting himself has been an isolating task. He lives on campus, in a single dorm room without roommates. He can’t take the chance and congregate with fellow college students, and when he goes home to his mom and aunt’s house in Providence on the weekends, he can’t see friends from high school. Instead, he connects with them virtually, talking to them over a headset while they play video games on separate PlayStations.
Basketball is a new passion of his, and the basketball video games are his favorite. When the pandemic forced Faal to spend much of his time at home, he started watching NBA games for the first time, and has even learned about many of the players.
His mom sat beside him in the exam room as he received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, beaming through her mask. He’ll go back for his second shot on April 24.
And when he’s fully vaccinated, he said he hopes to attend his first ever basketball game — maybe even one at T.D. Garden, he said, where the Boston Celtics play.
After receiving his shot, Burgos said he wants to become a nurse so that he can work with teenagers like him. He said he wants to help them be positive, and tell them that he knows what it’s like to feel helpless at first, but to stay strong.
And when he’s fully vaccinated in a few weeks, he said doesn’t want to talk to his grandmother through a window anymore.
When she comes by to drop off her homemade Dominican food, he said, “I just want to hug Mamá. And not let go. It’s the first thing I’ll do.”