When Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever recorded, passed over Florida, it sucked the water out of Tampa Bay. At Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, the lights flickered and the power surged. But a team of stationary engineers worked tirelessly to keep electricity flowing to the hospital.
Jey McCombe was not scheduled to work that night. But when he got an evacuation order for his house, he volunteered, arriving with his toothbrush and his dog, Sandy, and sleeping on a makeshift cot in the Communications Room.
Jey was on a team of four who rode out the storm, making sure the generators came online, the boilers stayed lit, the purified water remained sterile and the air conditioning kept running through the hot summer temperatures. "We are the heart of the hospital," he says, explaining the work his team does at the central energy plant. "The doctors are the brain, but we pump the blood that keeps the whole thing going."
At one point during the hurricane, the gale force winds began pulling water out of the top three-story cooling towers, which made one of the giant chillers fail and sent the condensing water reading sky high. Two of the other engineers on duty strapped themselves to the roof to fix the problem and secured a crane that had been blown off the side of the building, while Jey managed the controls and kept the operations functioning through the night.
"I look at my job like those are my kids at the hospital," he says. "And if the cooling, steam or power were to go out with a kid in the operating room, I would feel personally responsible for that."
For the first time in my life, I can see what a beautiful thing it is to be me. Especially after fighting so hard for it.
For Jey, this feels like the job he was born to do. A "steam head" like his dad, Jey grew up fascinated with anything mechanical, loving the messy physicality of the work. Simple as that sounds, it was complicated. Assigned female at birth, Jey's family didn't envision this path for him, and he struggled with his growing bodily discomfort and the gender norms that he was supposed to obey.
Every year, his godmother had a tradition of buying him a formal dress, and Jey learned early that if he could make himself throw up, he wouldn't have to wear it. In an attempt to feel like himself, Jey would steal clothes from his younger brother's closet and change into them in the school bathroom.
It wasn't until Jey stumbled on a transgender woman featured on the MTV show The Real World that he realized he wasn't alone. There was a name for what he was feeling and a community of people just like him.
Jey tried to tell his parents, but they told him he would grow out of it. He tried to explain again a few years later and then some years after that, when he began taking black market testosterone and dating women. Each time, they told him it was a phase, that he would only be "Jennifer" to them and that he wouldn't be welcome in the family if he wasn't.
After a blowup fight, Jey was kicked out of the house. He moved into an apartment with a group of friends who called themselves the Misfits and tried to make a life on his own. But his family's rejection ate at him. He tried to speak with his mother again, but she told him that she thought he was in a cult.
"How could I have been in a cult," Jey says, "when I barely knew anyone like me?" Emotionally wrecked, he drove his truck head-on into a tree in a suicide attempt, flipping it and destroying the front half.
Years later, when Jey decided to have top surgery, he asked his mother to come along. She said yes and sat nervously in the waiting room throughout the procedure. Jey isn't sure what happened, but when he came to, something had changed for his mother nearly as much as it had for him. "I don't know what the doctor said to her after the surgery, but suddenly she saw me as me," Jey says. "And this year, I finally got to hear my mother tell her friends how proud she was of her son."
After years of challenges, Jey is comfortable in his own skin. "For the first time in my life, I can see what a beautiful thing it is to be me. Especially after fighting so hard for it."