19 May ER Workers Worry: If They Die, Who Will Care for Their Son?
Dr. Adam Hill, an emergency room doctor, and Neena Budhraja, a physician’s assistant, both work in New York City public hospitals that are overwhelmed by the coronavirus. They sat down one night to address a growing concern: Determining who would be their 18-month son Nolan’s legal guardian if they became infected and died. These ER workers worry about who will care for their son if they die.
These aren’t just anxious parents. They work in two of the city’s busiest public hospitals
The couple spends their days and nights intubating terrified patients, navigating stretchers in crowded hallways and searching for clean equipment. The pandemic is putting unimagined strain on medical workers, exposing them to dangers and emotional stress unlike anything they have ever experienced. Among the deaths are those of their colleagues.
They talk to their colleagues to find out how others are keeping their families safe. Some send their children to live with relatives. Another doctor has moved to his basement, Facetimning with his children upstairs. One doctor is living at an airport hotel.
Adam and Neena don’t have those options
They take turns at their hospitals and return home to their young son. Neena has thought about quitting, yet feels a responsibility to her team. This is what she trained for. Yet both have lost colleagues to the virus, and their biggest fear has been infecting their families.
Neena and Adam were married in 2017, and they lived the kind of high-adrenaline life typical of those who work in emergency rooms. They trekked to Machu Picchu and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. ER doctors are accustomed to the predictable unpredictability of ER life. But the coronavirus transcends everyone’s imaginings.
Adam knew by early March that something was very wrong
Adam recognized that something was seriously wrong when men in their 30s and 40s, otherwise healthy, were showing up at the ER with fevers or were having trouble breathing. They would deteriorate rapidly, gasping for air within a few hours. He kept waiting, thinking that his team would get a handle on these cases and turn a corner.
The hospitals began retrofitting the facilities for the virus
They installed huge fans in the ER to suck out dirty air to try to keep the virus from spreading. The fans are loud, so alarms go off constantly from equipment monitoring the breathing of patients on ventilators. The entire team is hoarse from yelling over the noise of the fans and the alarms. It’s chaotic, exhausting.
Taking precautions to stay safe
Neena covers her scrubs with a gown that hides her wrists. She wears an N95 mask, a face shield, a cap and gloves. She uses the same face mask for two straight shifts, instead of changing it between patients as standard protocol calls for.
When her shift ends, she tapes her N95 mask to the inside of her locker and wipes down her face shield and stethoscope with alcohol. She changes out of her scrubs in a bathroom, leaves her sneakers and takes a packed subway or bus home. The trains are crowded now because of virus-imposed service cuts. Arriving home, Neena quickly turns away from Nolan, throws her airtight bag of dirty scrubs into the laundry room — where they will sit for at least 48 hours before she washes them — and takes a shower.
COVAD takes a personal toll on healthcare workers
Adam is not sleeping well. Late at night, he scrolls through a Facebook group of fellow ER doctors. One doctor wears gloves and a mask at home to protect his family. For Neena, a colleague’s death was a turning point–the overcrowded emergency room, the lack of isolation rooms, the hallways jammed with people on stretchers waiting days for a spot in intensive care to open up. She thought about quitting. One day, Adam found himself “crying uncontrollably, just finally letting out all the emotions from the past month.”
Choosing a guardian for Nolan in case something happened to them
As Adam and Neena worked on their Living Trust, a key part of this was deciding on a guardian for Nolan—if something happened to them they wanted to make sure that they were choosing the person who would care for their son—not the court. Because of the virus, everyone’s life has become a little more uncertain–Adam and Neena named three backup guardians.
Despite the stress, long hours, sleepless nights and concern for the health of their families, both Neena and Adam had always planned to spend their entire careers practicing emergency medicine. Dealing with the pandemic has strengthened this commitment.
Doctors worry that if social distancing stops, the rate of infections will spike again
Over the course of ten days, they have seen a steady decline in new virus patients at their respective hospitals. The fear that they will get sick has not gone away, and colleagues continue to test positive. Doctors are realists; they worry that if people stop social distancing too soon, a second wave of cases will inundate the hospital.
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This story is based on a story in the New York Times by Jesse Drucker.