When I was with Dr. Stephanie Whitener, 41, an anesthesia intensive care doctor and mother of two, said that the parent-teacher organization at her son’s elementary school was planning a personal happy hour for teachers. “I tried yesterday to rally all of the parents I knew in the healthcare sector to stop them because of the risk to them and also to personal learning,” said Dr. Whitener who lives in Charleston, SC
Although they ended up canceling happy hour, “it feels like I’m living in two different realities,” she said, one where people take the virus seriously and another where they don’t . This dichotomy can make the emotional and psychological toll of treating Covid-19 patients even more difficult.
Towards the end of this strange and difficult year, I wanted to highlight the experiences of parents who are medical professionals – and thank them for their service. Like so many other key workers, in 2020 they challenged their physical and mental wellbeing in order to get their jobs done. These front line workers are at higher risk of burnout and PTSD than the general population. Some have been separated from their children for weeks and only communicate via Zoom.
Like all parents, they worry socially, academically, and emotionally for their own children – while also worrying about the children who are falling behind in school due to the obstacles to distance learning and grieving over family members who have been lost to the virus. And even after more than 300,000 deaths in the US alone, some health care workers are still trying to convince their communities that the virus is a real threat.
“Some of the first deaths I saw were people who were only 5 to 10 years older than me, not 70-year-olds,” said Brianna Tremblay, a 36-year-old intensive care nurse in northern New Jersey. She is also the mother of a 3 year old and is pregnant with a baby expected in January. Their plight was especially overwhelming in March and April when the first wave of the virus hit the New York City area. “I would come home from work every night and cry with my husband,” Tremblay said.
“When a patient falls, we spend hours in the room rescuing them and then have to call the family,” to bring them the bad news, Tremblay said. Her intensive care unit had an 80 to 90 percent mortality rate for Covid-19 patients in March and April. “It was really a war zone.”
Some of the workers I spoke to have infected themselves with the virus. Cecilia Duran, a 38-year-old midwife in New York City, fell ill in March when she was 10 weeks pregnant. In addition to fairly intense symptoms – “worse than the flu,” she said – she also looked at nausea and fatigue of early pregnancy. “I quarantined my toddler, who was also sick, and my husband was trying to figure out how to work from home in a small New York apartment,” she said. “It was utter madness.”
Dr. Mary Thomas, a New Jersey pediatrician, said she was much more concerned about many of her young patients than about her own three children (her entire family already had the virus and is recovering). “I see so much anxiety and depression, and a lot has to do with this terrible year,” said Dr. Thomas. “Parents are unemployed, or losing money, or stressed out, and children are on screens for hours every day.”
But it’s not all bleak. Many parents who are health workers have described the outpouring of help received from their ward. In the middle of the pandemic, when the babysitter’s father got Covid-19 from Brianna Tremblay, she couldn’t come to work. Neither Tremblay nor her husband, who also works in health care, could take time off, so a couple of neighborhood mothers came in and watched their child.
“They really got together and supported me and brought me food and put signs on my lawn,” Tremblay said. “I’ve seen both the worst things in the world and the absolutely most incredible amount of support in my entire life.”
Tremblay, who is now 34 weeks pregnant, said she should get her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine this week. Dr. Whitener got their first dose last week, but that doesn’t mean their ministry will end anytime soon or that dissonance will arise in communities where people don’t respect the virus’s full effects. Carla Blue, 43, an intensive care nurse and mother of two school-age boys in Cincinnati, said, “When people don’t wear masks or social distancing, it feels like all the work you’re doing is in vain. ”
She leaves work physically and emotionally drained and then sees people talking close together and not wearing masks. “It makes me pull them aside and show them a picture of what we’re doing,” she said. “People are more selfish than I ever imagined.”