Amanda Watters

When I was little, I used to sit in this tree by the bay. I would look out over the water and imagine myself years from now sitting in this exact spot. I used to envision who I would become. I was going to be successful. I was going to be great. People would know my name. I would sit there, and I would see it. It was so close I could taste it. That spot was special. It was quiet, something I most certainly am not. It was restful, peaceful, a spot to cherish. I loved that tree. I loved the bay. That place was home in a way the word “home” can never capture. But I was little then.

Amanda Watters 2023 WCI scholarship

Amanda Watters

Then, Katrina happened. Katrina came, and she took my quiet, peaceful bay and turned it into a monster. The pier was gone; the house was gone. Our stuff had to be fished from the canal a half-mile back. Hurricanes are funny things. They come in and they destroy. The winds beat you down. The waters wash everything away. And the salt from the sea kills the life from the plants. My beautiful oak, my big lovely, perfect spot . . . that was gone too.

You. You are my hurricane. You came in, and you destroyed everything. You took my home, and you trashed it. You crashed into me like giant waves on bulwarks. You beat me down. You took my peace. You took my sense of safety. You poured salt into a wound. Your winds blew away my sense of self. And for the first time in my life, I sat down, and I couldn’t envision myself in a future—not a future I wanted to be a part of anyway. You came, and like a hurricane, you took your dear sweet time to make sure everything you touched was ruined.

And here I am in the aftermath—I’m picking up the pieces, I’m left fishing what I can find of myself from the canal a hal- mile back. I’m left looking at the empty slab where my house used to be and wondering where to start. I’m standing here looking out at the bay and wondering how the storm can pass, and yet I can still feel like I’m in it. I’m stuck looking at my bay and trying to keep the anger, the hurt, the sadness, the confusion at bay.

I thought after Katrina my oak tree had died. I loved that tree; I built a treehouse in it with my own hands when I was 5. When I was 7, I put a swing on the limb that reached out over the water. When I was 10, Katrina happened. When I was 15, my grandmother died, and I cried there for her. When I was 21, I had my grandfather’s 95th birthday party next to that tree. I have so many memories and feelings wrapped up in that tree. I’ve spent the last 12 years watching that tree—it took a lot. The salt killed most of it; we had to cut down the limb with the swing. We had to nurse it back to health. But a few years after the hurricane, we saw leaves . . . on the very tippy top.

That tree is resilient, let me tell you. It took a long time, years, and years, but that tree is flourishing—it's not quite as big or grand now, but it’s not dead. It survived. It came back. It's still standing. And I can still sit in my spot and look out over the bay.

So, if the damn tree can make it, then so can I. It may take some time to fix what you have done. It may take years and years of struggling to make sense of me again. It may be hard, and I feel like I’ve already had to cut off some limbs. But I refuse to let you win. I will have my peace. I will have my safety. I will have success. It will be great. I will have my future. I will have my vision. I will sit in my spot, and it will be special again and not tainted by you. Because it's not for you. It's for me. It’s mine. I am all mine. You don’t get to have me, my mind, my future. I own that. And don’t you forget it. I feel a little like Cardi B sometimes when I think about the hurricane.

“You know where I’m at. You know who I be. I don’t care who’s in front of me.

So, I got one little four-letter word for you—move. Cuz I still got room to grow. And last time I checked I’m still awesome. I’m still a badass. I’m still Amanda Watters.”

I wrote that letter when I was a senior in college when I was trying to make sense of myself again after suffering a violent sexual assault. Only a handful of people knew, and my grandmother was the only person I felt I could talk to. She told me after Hurricane Katrina she had felt similar, and all she had lost were things that could be replaced. She would give herself 15 minutes every day to grieve and then she would move on, because that’s life. I clung to the idea of her strength—her resilience—and made it my own.

I am like that oak by the bay. I made it. My roots are deep, my trunk is sturdy. I might bend, but I am not broken. My leaves may have withered for a time, but I am flourishing, providing refuge and respite to those below. My path to medicine wasn’t as linear as anticipated. But now I’m a third-year medical student at Tulane in New Orleans. The irony of working and caring for the community I once wrote about to express my own pain is not lost on me. In some ways, it feels full circle to be healing in a place that has healed me.

Recently, I had a rape survivor as my patient. She was one of several people I have had the chance to advocate for over the years since my own rape. My hope is that for each one of the survivors I encounter, I can make the path forward a little smoother. I realized my experience has equipped me to serve my community well. What was once difficult to talk about has allowed me to be a better physician. I can advocate, educate, and empower every patient I encounter. I have deep empathy for my patients, my community that has suffered storms, figuratively and literally. I share a unique connection with patients who are also victims of sexual violence, an unfortunately prevalent problem even in 2023. I have used that storm to enable change, implementing a trauma-informed curriculum in our medical education, connecting patients with community resources, and advocating for changes in the hospital to ensure appropriate and swift care.

Instead of destroying me, my Katrina encouraged me to grow back bigger and better than ever, with a new vision—one in which we all can have our spot by the bay.