Doctors – The selfless, unsung heroes of the moment who are out there, everyday, battling the worst pandemic we have ever seen. Doctors, who have left their own families behind as they rush out to save ours. As cases rise, and Covid-19 continues taking a staggering toll on the entire world, all our hopes have been pinned on our doctors. But what of the toll the pandemic is taking on them and their families? Dr. Salma Chaudhary, a New York based Cardiologist and mother to a 3-year-old sent us this after months of dealing with Covid patients in one of the hotspots of the pandemic.
I am a healthcare worker.
A cardiologist working at an esteemed hospital in New York City.
I love what I do, and am blessed to be able to balance work and family life, especially since I became a mother.
As I write this, I think back to a simpler time. Was it just in February, that I was sitting with my husband discussing how we would tackle the month of March. I had 2 medical conferences and a few speaking events coming up and had to travel 3 out of the 4 weekends in March. I thought I had a hectic few weeks coming up … Little did I know of the actual turmoil that was to come.
I had been tracking the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) spread across the world for sometime. Covid-19 infections had reached the United States on January 20th, in the state of Washington. Over the next month we heard of cases increasing (in the 80s) along the West Coast. So when it reached New York City in early March, we were not surprised. However, no amount of data or information that I had read could have prepared me for what actually followed.
Covid-19 cases were spreading like wildfire across NYC. This was not what we had seen in the less populous parts of the county. Meanwhile there were reports pouring in from China about healthcare workers dying. Italy and France had started publishing their data about how poorly the older patients were doing. At the same time doctors who were trying to help were dying because they did not have protective gear and were getting infected.
It was surreal.
Overnight our world turned upside down. We were asked by hospitals and the government to stop performing elective surgical cases.
Why ? Because we had to save personal protection equipment (PPE) and hospital space for critical beds. How could this be, I thought. I was in the the most developed country in the world. But even so we were running out of resources to help patients. Everyday presented a new challenge.
Our institution administrators asked us to reuse masks. The mere idea was revolting, since the mask sits on your mouth and nose and with each breath you exhale bacteria into it. Unless it was a reusable mask which could be washed, these masks were meant to be disposed of after each use.
So, I went from being a physician meticulous about hygiene and sterility, to being accommodating of new and ever changing policies with each rule being bent according to what was available to us.
“As a healthcare worker, it is your duty to serve the people”
“Isn’t this what you trained for?”
“Isn’t this the doctor’s super bowl?”
I heard it all and read it all. What I wanted to scream was – Yes! I am a healthcare worker dedicated to helping others but not at the cost of my own life or at the risk of my family’s health. We (physicians) never said we were not ready to do the job. We were ready but all we were asking for was some protection while we cared for the sick, so that we could go back home safe, to our families. Really, that was all.
During a fire, during a war or even the super bowl , no one is sent in without their ammunition, protective equipment/clothing or a helmet respectively. Yet here we were being asked to see Covid patients daily without appropriate gear. It was frustrating and frightening. I could see our hospital administrators working tirelessly to make space to accommodate the overflowing patients and get us enough PPE, but resources were not getting replenished fast enough.
Each day on my way back from the hospital I would worry if today was the day I brought the virus back to my family. I tried to stay physically away from my son in our New York City apartment, but how do you explain “keeping distance” or “no hugs” to a 3 year old? How does one stop a child from opening the door when his mother comes home? With the “stay at home order” everyone’s children stopped going to schools or daycares, but healthcare workers like me still had to go in. My spouse was still expected to work the full day efficiently, and not be baby sitting at the same time. So, in addition to working long hours at the hospital and trying to look out for my family’s health, I also had to figure out how to run my house and make sure they were cared for while I was away at work.
All in a day’s work for a working wife and mother, isn’t it?
My little boy wondered why he could not go to the park or meet his friends. He hated wearing a mask, and was no longer allowed to do his favorite thing on his way out – press elevator buttons. He heard his mother constantly holding him back – “No we can’t meet your friends“, “DON’T TOUCH THAT”, “No we cant use the slide“, “Don’t touch your face“, “No we cant eat ice-cream” “Sanitize” “Wash your hands” “SANITIZE” !!!!!!!!!
By the end of March, I sat with my husband discussing how we would tackle the coming months of April, May, June….. and God knows how much longer. We talked about staying apart, but where would we go? Staying in separate rooms within the apartment was another option but it was impossible to make my child stay away from me. We promised NOT to visit the other if one of us got ill with Covid and needed to be admitted to the hospital. We made contingency plans, talked about a will, last rites and who would get custody of our child if something were to happen to both of us.
Today it seems that the worst is behind me as New York is seeing fewer cases each day. But it is still a very real threat. We are living in a new reality now. My son will on occasion ask me, “Is there still a bug outside?”
I often wonder what long term effects will this pandemic have on him? Will he be a germaphobe? Will he feel comfortable to play like before or hug his friends? I still take every precaution at work and of course, when I get back home. My son has learnt not to hug me when I return from work, he doesn’t ask questions about the masks anymore, he doesn’t run to the door at my doorbell anymore. He just waits patiently for me to come out of the shower so that we can cuddle. For now, that is our ‘normal.’
Salma Chaudhary is a practicing Cardiologist in New York, and mother to an exuberant 3-year-old. When she’s not putting in pacemakers, you can find her chasing her son trying to get a mask on him or sanitize his hands.