Creative Writing Awards 2021 Winner: ‘Monotony,’ by Camila Soto Espinoza ’21 MSN

The 18th Annual Creative Writing Awards (CWA) were held virtually on April 22, a celebration of the liberal arts deeply embedded in the science and clinical practice of the Yale School of Nursing (YSN) community. After a keynote speech by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Linda Villarosa, each of the three winners read their piece aloud. 

Midwifery and Women’s Health specialty student Camila Soto Espinoza ’21 MSN is a three-time CWA honoree, an unprecedented feat in the competition’s history. Read her powerful 2021 submission below, and revisit her winning essays from 2020 and 2019.


In the middle of a pandemic, my mother wears a mask as she cleans rooms in a hotel that shouldn’t be full, yet somehow is fully booked. Tourists are enjoying vacations their entitlement has convinced them they deserve, because quarantine is just so boring.

In the middle of a pandemic, my father puts on a mask and gets on a bus that holds more people than seats. He has been asked to show up to a mine in the middle of the dessert to fix this machine that is no longer working. The company is losing money and their patience is short. 

In the middle of a pandemic, my sister wears a mask and answers the relentless questions of the customers that walk around the store. Does it come in a different color? Does it come in a different size? I’m just looking, thank you. This store pays the bills and the food of three different families.

In the middle of a pandemic, I wake up and get ready for work. 

I’ve lost that sense of fear of knowing that something lingering in the air might just kill me. Long gone are the days where I was terrified of an illness that takes your breath away and sometimes never gives it back. 

Working is neither an option nor a choice for any of us. My family and their immigrant daughter have bills to pay and mouths to feed. 

What if you get sick? my mother stresses as she begs me for something no one can afford; to stay home. 

I lost the 5 jobs that kept me afloat once the pandemic hit, and I need all the ones I found because the virus is spreading. I have a duty to serve, and a need to make money because bills don’t pay themselves and debt is growing. 

We have had the talk. The ultimate fear shared by everyone who loves someone who wears a pair of scrubs or has been labeled essential.  She knows I made arrangements right at the beginning of the pandemic. I have assigned a person that will take care of my remains and send them back home. As for them… I’m the person that will take care of their remains if it ever comes to that.

That´s what my savings are for now. To pay for death. 

I walk to work. 

I wear a mask I carefully chose to brighten the dystopian nature of our reality. On my way to work, I listen to the news about the people that don’t believe in this illness, and I listen to the news about the people that die of it. I get updates from my relatives and friends back in my home country. 

No hospital beds, so many are sick. 

I reach for my coffee mug to take a sip and I almost feel I’m doing something illegal. I look around me as I quickly lower my mask and take a big gulp. Then I put it back up. 

I work. 

I watch adults, and children, and babies get tested for an illness that makes you drown from the inside out. My protective equipment makes me sweat every last drop of water until I’m dry on the inside and drenched on the outside. Parking lots were not made for this, yet here we are, unable to eat or drink, shoving swabs down holes I had forgotten we had… but gotten so incredibly familiar with now.

Adults barely tolerate it; kids look at you like you’re torturing them; babies have to be restrained by their parents. They cry so hard my ears are ringing by the end of it. 

I’m done with this shift.  

I walk back home and get naked right at the door. I then spray the door with my very last bottle of disinfectant. I’m so incredibly grateful my family is not here with me. 

I jump in the shower. I change. I look at myself in the mirror and notice the red marks in the bridge of my nose that seem to be permanent by now. I wonder if it’ll leave a scar. 

I get ready for my second job. 

I walk. I get updates on the worsening symptoms of my relatives and friends back in my home country. Still no hospital beds, even more people are sick. 

I don’t drink coffee this time. I keep my mask in place and walk in silence as my upper lip is drenched in sweat and a lingering headache reminds me, I need water and food, not coffee. 

I work. 

I watch healthcare workers arriving defeated. They give me their arm and add their own sorrows. I get a single vial of blood from one of their veins and I’m surprised I’m getting something other than air. They look hollow. They look empty. They make me wonder how much pain and death we can witness without falling apart, and I’m certain some are close to figuring it out.

I wonder if the next pandemic will be PTSD and suicide.  

“It’s a horrible way to die,” they tell me, “and we might just die the same way.” 

“We might,” I respond, wondering if my respirator fits me well as my protective goggles and shield fog with condensation. 

We share a moment of silence. We part ways. 

Sweat drips down my back, covers my upper lips, the skin under my eyes, my hairline. 

I work in four-hour intervals with 15-minute breaks. I drink water and later regret it because that means I’ll have to pee. PPE is a commodity, and you can’t waste it like that. 

I take more samples, see more hollow faces. I hear the story of a man who died in the same bed where his wife had died a week earlier. 

My best friend back home texts me. She is sick. 

I keep working. The next person tells me they recently sent their daughter and partner away to live with their parents so they could be safe from the invisible dangers they carry home. You can’t see it, it might be stuck in your hair, infecting your clothes, lingering in the single goodnight kiss, in the hug you give them as you get home from a shift. 

I keep working. The next person tells me they are caring for their own people. Doctors and NPs and PAs and nurses that work floors they later populate as patients.

I keep working. My uncle is sick and rushed to the ER. My grandma’s O2 saturation is getting lower by the hour. 

I keep working. 

Free food. 

I go home. I repeat my little ritual. I get undressed by the door and put my clothes in my bucket. I’m almost out of disinfectant and there’s no way to find more. 

My best friend might get rushed to the ER if she continues to deteriorate. 

I shower. My feet throb, and so does my head. Dehydration is getting the best of me. I drink some water. I make some snacks that I eat while I keep working. 

My third job needs my attention. 

I read about the incompetence of government officials and the people that died because of it. I write reports I’ll soon use in meetings. 

It’s time for bed. 

I don’t usually go to bed. I fall into bed. I pass out in my bed. More than sleeping, it feels like I’m being turned off. Awake one moment, completely gone the next. I’m so exhausted, so drained, so incredibly numb that falling asleep is a matter of closing my eyes. 

Not this night though. Tonight, I cry. I don’t know why I’m crying, what I’m crying about… I just do. 

I sob uncontrollably for however long it takes me to set my alarms to get up tomorrow and do all of this, all over again. 

The remanent of lingering fear, the rage of incompetence and apathy, the hopelessness that this will never end settle like sediments when I’m not in motion.

My throat hurts, my head hurts, and I lay awake counting inhalations, wondering what it would be like to have lungs full of liquid, to be surrounded by air yet deprived of it. Does it feel like breathing in a void, or underwater? Does it feel like a weight in your chest or like the world is suddenly devoid of oxygen?

My eyes close. My alarm goes off. Somehow, five hours of sleep felt like a second, a blink, the brief instant between two heartbeats, two breaths, two sobs. 

My uncle is in the ICU. My grandma made it through the night. 

I get up, feeling more tired than yesterday, ready to do the exact same thing I’ve been doing for what feels like an eternity. There’s such a monotony in a pandemic, such a rhythm in the sounds the world makes as it falls apart. Maybe it’s one endless day, or so many days rushing in at the speed of light that you can’t pinpoint where one ends and the other begins. It feels like the pandemic started yesterday, and somehow also 10 years ago. 

And we’re still in the middle of it. 

In the middle of a pandemic, where I get ready for work…

About the Author

Camila Soto Espinoza is an international student from Chile. She graduated with high honors from the University of Concepcion in 2015 and found her way to Yale University three years later. She has made it through YSN despite the difficulties of being a first-generation, low-income student at Yale, the civil unrests of 2019 that threated the life of her family back in Chile, and one ongoing pandemic. Somehow, she will graduate in May of 2021, as a CNM and WHNP. She likes to keep herself busy while the world around her is on fire. She is a Yale Global Health Fellow at UNICEF, an CNM intern at Mass General Hospital in Boston, an RN supporting Yale’s efforts to keep their community safe during COVID, a student co-chair of YSN’s diversity committees, and an assistant in at least one research project. Needless to say, Camila is also perennially tired and always late. 

Read More CWA Winners

Read the award-winning entries of the other two 2021 honorees: “His Feet“ by Maxwell Shaw-Jones ’23 MSN and ” ‘Pain, You Say?’ A Nursing Home Monologue,” by Tim McGehee ’22 MSN.