Making the decision to uproot your life and move thousands of miles away from home is never easy. Add young children and a raging pandemic, and, well, it just became harder.
But Dr. Sarah Arachchi and her husband, Dr. Abhinav Vasudevan, and their two sons, 5-year-old Milin and 2-year-old Rishaan, did just that last month. They packed their bags and left their coastal Australian city, hopped on a plane (or two), and arrived in Rochester.
Dr. Vasudevan had been accepted for Mayo Clinic's prestigious inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) fellowship. He was originally scheduled to start in June 2020, but pushed the program's start date back six months, and the family arrived just before Christmas.
“For us to travel, that is not a decision we took lightly,” Arachchi said, adding that it was her husband’s dream to work at Mayo Clinic. “How could I not come when he said that to me?”
A few weeks after arriving in Minnesota, Arachchi typed a nearly 2,000-word essay on her family’s move from Melbourne to the U.S. during the pandemic. The essay was published online for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The words, she said last week, came quickly, and she was finished within an hour or two. She said it felt like “the story was being written for months, and it came from my heart.”
Since the piece was published Jan. 9, Arachchi said she’s had at least 100 people reach out to her, including families who were in similar situations.
“Obviously, we came here for a reason, and the reason was so my husband could gain skills in the clinic here that he could go back and use over there,” she said. “At the moment, he is working in a public hospital, so he is entirely dedicated to public service.”
Melbourne had multiple lockdowns because of COVID-19, including one that locked down the entire island nation and another that was specific to the city.
Arachchi and her husband had to get special permits to go to work. Her parents also had to get letters to provide child care for the couple’s youngest child.
“There is a lot of fear, I’d say, in Australia,” she said, “and I think it is partly how the different countries are running their COVID response. I have to say, Australia has done a really good job.”
On Monday, the state of Victoria reported its 19th consecutive day without a recorded new, locally acquired case of the coronavirus. The Australian state, which includes Melbourne, has a population of about 6.36 million.
Olmsted County, which has approximately 158,000 residents, recorded 50 new cases that day.
Snow and s’mores
Despite Minnesota's restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19, the family has been able to experience new things.
When they left Melbourne, it was summer. Although this winter has been mild, any Minnesotan will tell you we’re still far from summer.
Arachchi said Melburnians do experience cold, but the lowest it gets is freezing, and their homes are not equipped for it.
“The houses are not heated to the climate (in Australia),” she said. “When you are in the house in Melbourne, you feel cold in winter, whereas here, I’m not feeling cold in the house. I can wear a T-shirt.”
The snow, she said, is beautiful, and they’re having fun with it.
“I can go outside, and the kids can go play in the snow and make snowmen and toboggan and stuff, and they really enjoyed that,” she said. “I’m not missing the summer at the moment.”
“I think next month is going to be difficult with the really cold temperatures, so who knows in February,” she continued. “As long as there is snow, I’m happy.”
Arachchi said her family hasn’t had much takeout (or takeaway, as she calls it) since their arrival, and she was surprised restaurants were allowed to reopen for indoor dining.
“I am still scared to go to a restaurant, as much as I’d love to go to a restaurant, because in our country, the restaurants reopened when the cases went to zero in Melbourne,” she said. “As much as I miss the Melbourne restaurants, we were not allowed. Restaurants didn’t open for a long time, and that is when the cases had gone down to zero.”
Still, they’ve noticed differences in the food they buy from the grocery store.
“I really love the cheese from America, which sounds strange because I thought we had really good cheese in Australia, but I feel like I like the American cheese better,” she said.
Recently, Arachchi tried s’mores for the first time.
“That was pretty cool,” she said. “We don’t have s’mores back in Australia. You can buy them in the stores, but it’s not how the Americans make it.”
Arachchi has also been surprised by the hospitality she's experienced in Rochester.
Whether it's strangers dropping off toys or fellow Australian expats bringing over “a whole heap of household items that might be helpful,” Arachchi said American neighborliness is something you don’t see much in Australia unless you really know your neighbors.
For example, a woman she met through a Facebook group of Mayo Clinic families helped her complete a 2½-hour Target trip to get household necessities.
“People’s kindness,” Arachchi said. “I’ve had a lot of people try to help us out in some way, and it’s just been really touching.”