By Nancy Price
When 2013 Center Grove High School graduate Celia Menke decided to attend medical school, she chose a location most dream of vacationing: St. Maarten, where the American University of the Caribbean (AUC) is located. After moving to an apartment on the Dutch side of the island in late August of 2017 she looked forward to her then-fiancé joining her to enjoy walks along the beach and sampling Caribbean food at nearby restaurants.
Just days later, she awoke to loud noises: a banging metal door, a strange whooshing sound and excited voices ordering people away from windows. Hurricane Irma had just struck the island.
“There was talk of a potential storm headed to the island,” Menke recalled after arriving at St. Maarten. “The overall attitude I encountered was that the storm was not of major concern. Everyone was used to preparing for the yearly storms. There hadn’t been a ‘big one’s since Luis in 1995.”
Orders were soon given to students, faculty and locals to take shelter in a relatively new academic building on campus. Menke called her kind, elderly landlady, and asked her to join others at the shelter, yet, the women refused because her husband was homebound and did not want to leave their home. “They had survived many hurricanes in the past and had never left previously,” Menke said.
After reluctantly leaving her neighbor to seek shelter, Menke said she did not feel afraid of the severity of the storm since she didn’t know what to expect. She settled in a small room with several others once she arrived at the campus building and eventually slept. Suddenly, “I was awoken by a commotion,” she recalled. “People talking, a vacuum, the smell of gasoline, the occasional sudden banging of metal and a bizarre whooshing sound. I laid in the darkened room and put my hand against the cool, concrete wall. It was vibrating as if I had my hand against the wall of a jet. The sound of the wind was similar to sitting on an airplane. People were trying to bolt a large metal door that kept flying open despite locks. Vacuums were being used to soak up water that was coming in around window seals and under walls. Hours passed like this. We sat through the eerie calm as the eye passed over before another several hours of wind. The next day, we saw the damage from the 185 mph winds.”
After the storm passed, Menke worried about her landlady. “A rescue team of physicians and students found her trapped in her home with several cuts sustained after a large glass door broke on top of her,” said Menke. “She was carried to campus so her wounds could be cleaned and sutured.” After her landlady was cleared to return home, Menke checked on her and helped replace the bandages. Fortunately, her landlady’s husband had no injuries.
Once approval was granted for U.S. plans to arrive on St. Maarten by the Dutch government, Menke prepared to evacuate the island. “I packed into a dented SUV with broken windows,” she said. “The car ride to the airport had a definite sense of urgency. On the way, I saw an island that looked nothing like when I arrived. It looked as though it had been caught on fire. The wind had stripped all greenery. Light posts were bent in half, hotels reduced to rubble and cars scattered like toys. The recently-built airport was now a roofless frame.”
Menke arrived back home in Indiana on Sept. 11, excited to see her family and fiancé, Josh Green. Menke met Green, an Australia native, when both were attending Hanover College in Hanover, Ind. Just 12 days later, Green and Menke married in a small backyard ceremony with close friends and family. “After the hurricane, we began to realize how much benefit there would be to getting married and him being a U.S. Green Card holder,” she said. “The future was uncertain, but the one thing we knew was that we were ready to get married.”
LEARNING ON THE JOB
The couple moved five days later to Preston, England. After the hurricane, AUC temporarily held classes at the University of Central Lancashire. Four months later, the couple returned to St. Maarten and Menke continued her schooling. Last August, the couple moved to Miami, where Menke is practicing clinical rotations and learning about COVID-19 on the job.
“My travels and clinical experiences in Miami have been highly valuable to me,” she said. “These experiences have taught me that life rarely goes to plan, but the unexpected often results in the most personal growth and learning. The most important lesson I learned is that no matter your location in the world, the core of practicing medicine is building trust with patients to understand how social and personal aspects play a role in effective patient care.”
“We have lived all around the world together and feel that we can adjust to life anywhere,” added Green. “We are now able to look back on the difficult times and know we can handle whatever life throws at us.”
However, there’s still no place like home. “After moving to so many new countries and cities throughout my medical education, I’ve realized that nowhere makes me as happy as being around friends and family in my home state,” Menke said. “I would be honored to attend a residency program in Indiana and finally be able to put down roots.”