The first time I had to wear an N95 mask was on July 3, 2018 — the first day of my bone marrow transplant treatment. I was 20 years old, set to start chemotherapy the next day, and although I wasn’t yet immune-compromised, I was in an air compressed room on the Oncology floor of a children’s hospital, and it was the rule for all admitted patients and guests to wear one.
“Trust me,” the physical therapist said as she handed me a small, blue N95 mask, “The sooner you get used to wearing it, the easier this will be.”
I turned the mask awkwardly over in my hands, taking in another new rule that I was supposed to follow. I maneuvered the strap over my newly bald head and moved the mask into place. It felt tight on my face; I felt like I couldn’t take a full breath. I fiddled with it a bit as I walked down the hallway, my IV pole in tow. I remember making a joke about feeling like Bane from The Dark Knight, and I wondered how anyone managed to function with one on every day. I hoped that it wouldn’t be a long term thing and the doctors assured me it wouldn’t be. Just 100 days of isolation after chemotherapy. Then, you can take it off forever.
I didn’t know it then, but I’d spend the next two years of my life wearing a mask every single day. I still do. Wearing a mask works for a very simple reason: the air we breathe actually has a lot of dangerous things in it, especially if you’re like me and you have a weakened immune system. By preventing these droplets from reaching the nose and mouth with a mask, I’m preventing my exposure significantly and making it safe for me to be in public. The idea that masks don’t work has not only been debunked by countless scientific studies, but also by my own personal experience: I went back to college with no immune system (with a B & T cell count of 0) and survived two flu seasons without getting a viral disease simply because I wore a mask and washed my hands.
When I first started wearing my mask, I became aware that it brought me unwanted attention. I was always stared at in public settings. In the pre-COVID-19 world, it wasn’t common to see someone wearing a medical mask outside of a hospital, especially in restaurants, bars, and grocery stores. People pointed and whispered, forgetting that I could both see and hear them talking about me. And yet, my mask slowly became a part of my everyday life. I realized that if I wanted to participate in the world again, wearing a mask was the price I would have to pay to be with the people I loved.
For me, my mask is a symbol of freedom, because it gives me my power back. I can go back into public again, see my friends, and attend college to get my degree. Without my mask and Lysol wipes, I would probably be dead.
Now, two years later, my immune system is still recovering from complications, but as long as I wear one, I am healthy. My 100 days of wearing a mask and Lysoling down every surface has now turned into my daily life as a bone marrow transplant survivor. But in the time of COVID-19, when wearing a mask has become a political symbol, I often find myself wedged into a confusing politicized position that I never wanted to be in.
I wear a mask because I am protecting myself and others, just like I’ve been doing for the past two years. And at this point, I’m not sure that I care all that much what you believe about them or not — I don’t really think that’s the issue. My concern is simply that I am asking you to do something to protect me because it makes me feel safe, welcome, and comfortable. I am asking you to consider that wearing a mask is about respecting people’s boundaries and making spaces accessible to everyone.
In life, we do this for people we love and care about all the time. We wear seat belts in the car, we wash our hands when preparing food, and we go to great lengths to make sure people have what they need to be comfortable. Caring about others is about occasionally making yourself uncomfortable, and it is not that hard to wear a simple piece of fabric over your mouth or nose so that Grandma can be alive for Christmas dinner next year.
Look: I know what it’s like to hate wearing a mask. There are times when I wish I could just throw mine away. They’re uncomfortable and make you sweat. They fog up your glasses, make it hard to wear headphones, and difficult to hear and understand other people. They prevent us from seeing each other smile and can make us feel guarded. But these reasons are simply not good enough, because I have been through too much to die for your minor inconvenience.