I had a really sweet gig before coronavirus. Anyone would agree. I was able to work part-time as a cardiologist. A perfect unicorn job, where I got to take care of my patients at the hospital, and spend large chunks of time with my young children. On nice days, I got to take them to the playground after school. I had the best of both worlds. I was even on the PTA.
But then coronavirus hit. As my hospital filled with cases, I felt the pull to come in and help. There is no way I could sit on the sidelines while my hospital was flooded with patients.
My husband and I discussed the options. We decided I would not separate from the family. I would come in through the garage, Lysol wipe everything and take a shower before I came upstairs. We made the decision because it seems that kids are mostly spared the horrible consequences of coronavirus. I couldn’t imagine not being able to snuggle with them for weeks on end. I know that this is a very personal decision for each family. I know other families that have made a different one. That’s one of the new sources of mom guilt — did I make the right choice? Am I putting my family at risk?
Working more has also changed the dynamic in the house. Luckily I have a husband who is a true partner at home. He is home more because he had to close his outpatient physical therapy practice. Now he is in charge of all home schooling endeavors. I do not envy him. On the occasional day off, I sometimes ponder which is harder – the COVID wards or homeschooling a restless six-year-old?
Nonetheless, I picked up extra shifts to help take care of COVID-19 patients. That’s where the other mom guilt comes in. My daughter would say, “Are you going to work again?” My son asked, “When are you going to be home for a long time again?”
The hospital was complete chaos for the first two weeks. We were not prepared for the deluge of patients. I remember stopping and looking around the emergency department. There were intubated patients everywhere. There were rows upon rows of stretchers. There were patients sitting in chairs. All of them gasping for breath with oxygen masks. I felt like I was in a battlefield watching people with mortal injuries pile up around me. I felt a sense of panic — like we needed to call the National Guard or something.
At the time, it was clear to me that our hospital administration, local, state, and federal government had all failed us. Slowly things improved. We got more staff, more equipment. It no longer feels like chaos. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it easier to treat these patients. It feels like nothing we do makes any difference. It seems completely arbitrary who lives or dies. I’ve had 80-year-old heart failure patients go home and 43-year-olds die. It is awful as a physician to feel so powerless over a disease.
We are all traumatized by what is going on. I wonder sometimes if being an older mom makes me more sensitive to it all. Does it make me even more upset by all this loss? Is it different after having lost my own father last year? Does it make it more personal to me when I have a conversation with a daughter over the phone about how her dad is not doing well? Maybe that is why I take every opportunity to help my patients FaceTime/WhatsApp with their family. I can’t imagine how it feels to have a sick loved one in the hospital, and not be able to visit them. My mom lived in my dad’s hospital room last year while he was dying.
Maybe I identify too much with the younger patients. The ones that have small kids at home like I do. Those kill me, like when I’m talking to a wife about her husband in critical condition and I hear a baby cooing in the background. I try to help her understand why she lost her husband to this disease, why his body succumbed and others don’t. But how can I, when I don’t even understand? I read bedtime stories to my kids, thinking about how her husband will never be able to do that again.
My kids know about “the virus.” They know that’s why they are not going to school and why we can’t see Nonna (their grandma). But they don’t know what I see. They don’t see me cry while I’m driving home, or in the shower before I come upstairs. They don’t know the death that haunts me. So much death that it seems like there is a new refrigerated truck outside every time I go to work.
That they don’t know this is good. That is how I want it. I want them blissfully ignorant. I try to focus on their unadulterated joy for life. They are the light that will show us a way out of this.