When my husband became a physician, we knew it wouldn’t be an easy road. Years of training, long hours, working holidays, studying for boards; the list goes on and on. We never could have prepared for what being a doctor during a pandemic would mean for him or our family.
When COVID hit our area in mid-March, like most people, I was worried. However, on top of the worry for my health, my children’s health, educating my children, finding toilet paper(!), I had another worry — my husband is an ICU physician and a Pulmonologist. Not only is he a front-line worker, in a lot of cases, he is the end of the line for his patients. The last face they would see. The person who would work extra hours and extra shifts trying to save their lives.
In my 36 years, I have persevered through a lot of difficult situations. I’ve experienced many personal challenges and struggled with severe depression in high school. Over the course of my life, I have mastered the art of staying positive in difficult situations. I find the silver linings in even the most arduous situations. When I became a mother, I grew even stronger, bolder, and more confident in myself. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. However, NOTHING could have prepared me for the cruel, vile, and unthinkable things that were said to me, typed to me, and yelled at me during this pandemic. It was almost unbearable.
One of the first things I heard was that the virus was a hoax and doctors were LIARS. I remember being physically ill after a conversation with a friend from grade school. This particular individual actually believed that doctors were falsely diagnosing their patients to inflate the numbers and scare people. I don’t know much about medicine, but I do know my husband is dedicated to his patients and respects his profession. He would never spread false information. I was at a loss.
The ICU at my husband’s hospital was inundated by COVID patients and by April, he was seeing 20-30 of them every shift. He worked even more days and even longer hours than ever before. He walked into the unknown every day for months. He grieved with his patient’s families and at home with his own. He put young people with no pre-existing conditions on ventilators. People our age. People with kids the same age as our kids. And still, people all around us would insist that the virus wasn’t real and that he was lying.
Then there were a multitude of people on Facebook who were YELLING (or typing in all caps) that “this is just the flu.” Sadly, some people still believe this. After 8 years in practice, our family is well-versed in the flu and the strain it puts on the ICU each fall/winter. Nov-March is typically a very hectic time in the hospital. It has NEVER looked like it did this year. Not even close.
The most bizarre comment was that doctors were being paid for COVID diagnoses. Friends from grad school, people in my community, and members of my own family actually tried to convince me that this was true. They’d say, “maybe not at your husband’s hospital, but in other places it is.” My own brother called me in the middle of a Monday morning to tell me that “all doctors are assholes and that they’re getting paid to lie about the numbers.” Even more shock. For weeks, I joked with my husband about when our “COVID check” was coming. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Outside of the judgment and the hatred and the anger I was suddenly on the receiving end of, I was in a constant state of worry.
Constant worry that my husband would get COVID. He has asthma — would this affect him differently? I became more anxious and fearful with each passing day thinking that he would get sick — or worse, that I could lose him.
Constant worry that he would unknowingly bring COVID home to us. We contemplated having him quarantine alone in the basement. But as this dragged on week after week, the idea of caring for three small children with no help seemed daunting. Instead, I met him each night at the door. His keys, wallet, and phone went into a bowl to be sprayed down, his scrubs went into a sanitizing cycle in the washer, any surfaces he had touched on his way in were sprayed down with Lysol. I had become OBSESSED with germs.
Constant worry about his mental state from working more hours, the extra responsibilities, the pain of watching so many patients lose their lives. By the time May rolled around, he was not himself. I tried so hard in those months to push down my own anxiety to be there for him. I planned fun meals and we tried new cocktails. I found shows to binge so we could escape reality. We did puzzles, had dance parties, and even “camped” in a tent on our deck. We planted trees, put in a walkway, and built a swingset (him) for our kids. We had deep conversations and got creative in finding meaningful ways to connect with others. We sent snail-mail and dropped off lawn signs for birthdays. We surprised friends with treats in their mailboxes and bought coffee for the people behind us in the Starbucks line. We took a (very careful) trip to the beach and reconnected as a family. All of these things a distraction from the sadness and the anger and the death all around us. Finding those small moments of joy carried us through those exceptionally dark months.
Constant worry about my mental state from being home alone with three small children. While most people complained about their husbands bothering them, I was missing mine more than ever. In those seemingly never-ending weeks, I would’ve given anything for him to be home stepping on my toes.
Constant worry about our children’s mental state. They were constantly asking where daddy was: When was he coming home? Would it be tomorrow? The next day? Would he be able to tuck them in that night? My oldest isn’t old enough to fully understand the virus, but she is old enough to understand that daddy is “helping the sick people.” That explanation seemed to work for awhile…until it turned to worry for daddy and questions about whether or not the virus would KILL him. I had a lot of conversations I wasn’t prepared to have with my 6-year-old this year.
During this time, we watched as our neighbors and family and friends went on with their lives as if nothing had changed. People had big parties and Easter egg hunts and took trips. They planned events and were offended when we didn’t attend.
Thankfully we have a few phenomenal people in our lives who rallied around us. They sent texts, flowers, cards, and even beer. They checked in periodically to see how we were holding up or if we needed anything. Those people carried us through. All the while, our bubble and the list of people we could trust was becoming increasingly small. Very few people understood that my husband had a responsibility to his patients to be careful. A small group of those around us understood that we were fearful that we may be unknowingly carrying the virus. Even fewer people understood the massive amount of stress we were (failing at) managing. It was incredibly isolating.
I felt as if I couldn’t take anymore or I would break … and then something clicked. All of those coping skills I had learned in high school came rushing back to me like a tidal wave. And I was either going to sink to the bottom or rise to the occasion. I needed to focus on my purpose and forget the rest. I stopped engaging with negative people. I stopped feeling sorry for not attending events or birthdays. I stopped worrying about other people’s feelings and started to focus on what mattered — my husband and our children. I started to find small joys in each day. I avoided social media.
If this year has taught me nothing else (besides the value of toilet paper), it’s to focus my attention on what matters most and to hold on tight to those who are helping and supporting me in doing that. It’s taught me who my people are and who I can depend on.
With the second wave officially upon us, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go before this is over. Our children’s school is preparing to go virtual over the Thanksgiving holiday and numbers at the hospital continue to climb. Finding those small moments of joy each day and leaning on our tribe will be quintessential in evading what has become an all-too-real version of Groundhog Day.
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