I recited the Hippocratic Oath many years ago as I donned my new white coat and made a commitment to serve humanity through the practice of medicine. That zeal to help others continued through a vigorous residency and fellowship. As life was put on hold to pursue that dream of becoming a doctor, the brakes were lifted after training as I got married and had two children. Soon, instead of having the luxury of time to spend with my patients, colleagues, and the EMR, I found myself juggling my schedule and rushing home to prepare dinner, eat with my children, and put them to bed, only to continue working after they fell asleep.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted health care heroes working tirelessly on COVID wards and intensive care units, many of them having to quarantine themselves from their families to prevent inadvertent spread to their loved ones. Many of these providers on the frontlines have volunteered their services, taking them away from areas of comfort like the outpatient clinic and throwing them into more unfamiliar territory. Before my children, I would have jumped at the opportunity to be on those frontlines, but things have changed.
At the forefront now is my need to protect my family, especially my young children who are 1 and 3 years old. Before the pandemic, they spent long hours in daycare, but once that closed due to the stay-at-home order, I have been their teacher, cook, and cleaner — essentially a stay-at-home mom. And though I embrace every minute of it, I also have a vulnerable patient population that I care for: the elderly. I feel pulled (literally) in multiple directions as I try to be present for my children while also addressing the complex needs of my patients during this anxiety-provoking time. My reliable backup childcare, i.e., the grandparents, have been out of commission as they socially distance in their homes. I have tried to find childcare and interviewed nannies only to be turned down when they find out I’m a health care worker. I have contemplated having a volunteer medical student watch my kids but find the risk outweighs the benefit with children that are so small. Finally, there are daycare centers open for health care workers, but social distancing with such young children is impossible.
To protect my family, I have opted to put a screen/telephone between myself and my patients and use telehealth to continue to address the needs of my patients. My patients have graciously accepted evening hours to accommodate my time with my children during the day. So after a long and exhausting day, I take off my mom hat and put on my doctor one addressing my patient’s concerns and questions and connecting with them over the phone to help ease their fear of being alone.
This pandemic has made me realize that separation of work and family in our society is impossible and that those that are most successful are ones that have learned to integrate the two. I am grateful to patients who are understanding of this, many of them offering me words of support and encouragement. To all the physician parents taking care of young children while also trying to honor the Hippocratic Oath: You are a health care hero.
Poonam Merai is an internal medicine physician.
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