Two years ago, when Yale undergraduate Chaney Kalinich travelled to Puerto Rico’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Dengue branch in the midst of the Zika outbreak, she didn’t realize that the trip would change her life — and help her find a “second family.”
As a goalie for the Yale women’s field hockey team, Kalinich was familiar with high-pressure situations, and as a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major, she was eager to be on the front lines studying the disease — an interest she discovered while working in the laboratory of Dr. Albert Ko, chair and professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases) and of medicine (infectious diseases). Ko connected Kalinich with Tyler Sharp, another epidemiologist who works with the CDC in Puerto Rico and who arranged for Kalinich to get a travel scholarship to work at the CDC’s Dengue branch in Puerto Rico in 2016.
The Center for Disease Control in Puerto Rico had declared a public health emergency in 2016. The mosquito-transmitted disease Zika affected thousands of the island’s residents. Causing flu-like symptoms in adults and birth defects including microcephaly in infants infected during pregnancy, Zika is similar to yellow fever and West Nile virus. The illness spread swiftly, and Puerto Rico was not prepared for the outbreak. Hospitals and treatment centers became full of patients experiencing Zika-like symptoms.
Kalinich’s work at the CDC involved processing data through a satellite and mapping program called ArcGIS. It was her responsibility to make a spreadsheet of all the infected citizens and where they lived. “I was trying to geocode the 10% to 20% of the Zika patients that [the program] didn’t. It could be a bunch of people in one building complex. You need to sort through who lives where. So, I did a lot of geocoding and collating different spreadsheets.”
With the data, the CDC could understand where the virus was spreading, where the most affected areas were, and even predict which area would be overtaken next. Kalinich recalls that, despite being behind a computer, she felt like she was making a difference in the fight to stay ahead of Zika.
Meanwhile, not wanting to lose her athletic edge while interning, she set out to look for a field hockey team to play with, and found one in the Puerto Rican National Women’s Field Hockey Team. When not working, she met the team at a local field and scrimmaged with them. The team soon became her “second family,” she says.
One morning, Kalinich and some of her friends, one also from Yale, were on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, using mopeds to get around. Kalinich was having a great time, she recalls, until she and her roommate collided with a pickup truck and were thrown from their vehicle. While both survived, Kalinich sustained severe injuries.
The impact caused her ligaments and tibia to snap in her right knee. She received immediate medical care in Puerto Rico, but was misdiagnosed. Not realizing how bad the injury was, she remained in Puerto Rico working with the CDC. “Right away [I] was kind of in denial. I was like, ‘I’m fine, really. I love my internship.’ So I didn’t want to have to go home. … I tried to stay there on crutches,” she says.
There had been a shortage of doctors in Puerto Rico even before the Zika virus further strained the island’s medical resources, and the ER doctor Kalinich saw convinced her to return to the United States and get medical care there. Gail Kalinich, Chaney’s mother, flew to Puerto Rico to help bring her daughter home. Kalinich had surgery to repair her ligaments at the University of Chicago and had follow-up treatment in Connecticut with Dr. Patrick Ruwe ’83, ’87 M.D., her father’s former football teammate at Yale.
Back at Yale, Chaney was still thinking of Puerto Rico and the teammates she had left behind. She was still in contact with them, getting texts and emails about the progress the team was making. The coach even called her and asked if she would fly down to play in an upcoming tournament. Because her injuries were still not healed, Kalinich had to decline. In fact, she had to take a semester off from playing at Yale, although she participated in as many team activities as she could. Before returning to the field, she received physical therapy through the Yale Athletics Medicine program at Yale New Haven Hospital.
There Yale field hockey alumna Dr. Elizabeth Carpenter-Gardner ’01, assistant professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation, told Kalinich that she understood what the athlete was going through, and assured her that she would be able to play again. Gardner helped Kalinich transition back onto the field.
In 2017, Kalinich watched the news with dismay as Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The hurricane caused massive damage to the island with winds reaching up to 175 miles per hour. The storm knocked out power and resources for the citizens. Kalinich feared the worse for her friends there. Before she could reach out to them, she received several texts from her Puerto Rican teammates. Each one assured her that they were okay and asked how she was recovering. She was deeply moved, she says: Her teammates from Puerto Rico had suffered so much, and were still worried about her injury. Although she had not played on the Puerto Rican National Team long, she had made a lifelong bond with each of them, she says.
This sense of family was what drew her to Yale, she says. Kalinich grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Kevin Kalinich, graduated from Yale in 1984, but did not press his daughter to apply. “I know he wanted to, but he didn’t push me to go to Yale. … All the reasons he loved Yale [became] the same reasons I came here,” Kalinich says. The diverse environment that Yale’s residential colleges offer was also one of the deciding factors, she adds.
The news about her friends in Puerto Rico only motivated Kalinich to keep going and recover. Before getting back on the Yale field, however, Kalinich received a call from the coach of the Puerto Rican National Team. “I told them that I was cleared to play. I was working my hardest to get back in shape and practicing. So, if they needed a goalie, I’d be ready whenever they were — if they wanted me. And they did! I was in Mexico for 10 days playing for them.”
In those 10 days, Kalinich says, she worked her hardest with the team, despite not having played in a field hockey game in over a semester. The Puerto Rican National Women’s Team, with Kalinich as goalie, took third place overall in the National Hockey Series Open.
Kalinich attributes her ability not to fall into despair when bad events happened to her to her lack of doubt about whether her goals would be achieved. “I’ve had some fantastic medical care and I’m so, so grateful for that, considering … it took months for it to really sink in how bad the injury was.” She says she is grateful to all of her teachers and professors who have helped her along the way, and is especially thankful for her teammates both in Puerto Rico and at Yale.
Kalinich is back on the Yale women’s field hockey team this year. A premedical student, she is enrolled in Yale’s Accelerated B.S./M.P.H. five-year program and is looking forward to a career helping to fight disease.
Kalinich says she hopes to return to Puerto Rico to play with the Puerto Rican National Team and, perhaps, to work more with the CDC.
“It’s kind of like a second home and spending more time there would be great,” she says.