One morning last November, a harrowing phone call roused Syria Sanchez from her sleep. Her mother was on the line, and she was crying. She had slipped and fallen down a flight of stairs in the subway station at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, injuring her left shoulder, back and hip.
Without thinking, Ms. Sanchez leapt out of bed, got dressed and rushed out the door. When she arrived at the subway station, emergency medical workers were helping her mother, Regina, up the steps and into a wheelchair. She was in tears and gripping her arm in pain.
Seeing her mother in that state was traumatizing, Ms. Sanchez said. She could not help but wonder how the accident would affect their lives. “How is she going to go to work? How are we going to pay rent?” Ms. Sanchez recalled thinking. “Is she going to be O.K.? What do I do from now on?”
At the hospital, Regina Sanchez learned she had inflammation and osteoarthritis, and was prescribed painkillers. The next day, she could barely get out of bed.
Syria Sanchez, now 19, had been studying nursing at York College in Queens. When she realized her mother would need time to recover, she dropped out of school to look after her. “That was always my first priority,” she said. “I had to put my needs to the side.”
They were sharing a three-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex in East Harlem. Ms. Sanchez’s parents had split up when she was 12, and her four siblings had moved out.
Her mother, now 60, reluctantly quit her job as a home health aide soon after the fall. She wanted to return to work, but her daughter implored her to rest.
From that point on, a mountain of responsibilities fell on Ms. Sanchez: She had to keep their apartment in shape, fill out her mother’s medical paperwork and accompany her to all of her doctor’s appointments.
Ms. Sanchez was also working as an activity specialist at a nonprofit organization that supports at-risk children and families in Harlem and the South Bronx, picking up extra shifts whenever she could.
She waited until she had been out of school for about a month before telling her mother she had dropped out. The news brought Regina Sanchez to tears. She had grown up in Honduras and quit school at age 12 to help support her family, her daughter said. It pained her to see Syria making a similar sacrifice.
“We were both sad,” Ms. Sanchez said. “She would cry — I would be crying, too.”
Money was tight. Regina Sanchez was receiving about $200 in food stamps every month in addition to $434 in disability benefits, which was not always enough to cover their groceries and $336 rent. Ms. Sanchez took care of their phone bills and other expenses, and tried to help with rent whenever possible, yet they barely scraped by for several months.
“It was just us two,” she said. “Us two making sure we were both good.”
Her siblings were not checking in regularly, Ms. Sanchez said, and most likely did not realize that she and their mother were struggling. She distanced herself from many of her friends, who she said were less supportive than she had hoped, though she acknowledged that she often kept her troubles to herself.
Ms. Sanchez inherited that stoicism from her mother, she said. Tears welled in her eyes as she recalled moments from her childhood when her mother had sacrificed in silence to make ends meet. “I didn’t know this, but she wouldn’t eat to make sure we would,” Ms. Sanchez said. “It just shows how strong she is. Nothing breaks her.”
By February, her mother had regained some strength, so Ms. Sanchez enrolled at a community college in the Bronx to resume her nursing studies. She was ready to pick up where she had left off, but she did not have a laptop. Assignments had to be done at libraries or at her office.
She had previously worked with Children’s Aid, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, and had been checking in with her mentors at one of the agency’s centers in East Harlem. During one of those visits, she opened up about the stress she was under.
In May, Children’s Aid used $575 from The Fund to buy Ms. Sanchez an HP laptop. “It’s helped me so much,” she said. “I get my essays done on time.”
Things have been looking up. In August, one of Ms. Sanchez’s brothers moved in to help out. He has been paying rent, easing the financial burden.
Her mother is now retired. She uses a cane and spends most of her time at home with her son’s Border collie pit bull, which she calls “my baby.” She sees several specialists to monitor her health and now goes to appointments on her own, sometimes walking some 20 blocks to get there.
“We do everything to avoid trains,” Ms. Sanchez said.
In August, after leaving the nonprofit group, Ms. Sanchez started working part time at a J. Crew store on Fifth Avenue. She is on track to graduate with an associate degree in 2021 and is pushing herself to make up for lost time. “I have my foot on my neck this semester,” she said.
After she graduates, she hopes to enroll in a nursing program and work in a hospital. When she was growing up, she had a favorite nurse who always managed to comfort her before doctor’s appointments. The role seemed like a good fit for her because, she said, “I like helping people.”
Despite her full schedule, Ms. Sanchez has struck a balance between caring for her mother and tending to her own needs. And she has instituted a new rule since last year’s subway accident: Her mother has to answer her phone calls no matter what.
Turning to her mother, Ms. Sanchez said, “I need to make sure you’re O.K.”
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