A physician-mother comforts her frightened, 6-year-old daughter

It’s Monday morning at 7:15 a.m. Our kids, ages 6 and 9, have just finished breakfast, and they know to get their shoes on to go for a walk. We are hand-in-hand, slowly waking up as we put one foot in front of the other. We ambled down our neighborhood streets, listening to birds chirping and squinted as we looked upward to admire their flight.

Out of nowhere, our 6-year-old squeezes my hand and says, “I don’t want to die young.” As a parent, you hear your child say many alarming things, so I tried to brush this one aside. I thought to myself, perhaps she is emotional about something she’s just read or watched. To humor her, I say, “well, why would you say that?” She stops walking, let’s go of my hand, hangs her head, and says, “the coronavirus.”

Like many parents, my husband and I have tried to create a sense of calm amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of the kids being at home all day, every day, my husband and I both working from home have created a schedule to keep us all sane and to get through the workday. So, we start every morning with a walk as a way to check-in with one another, to get some exercise but also because there are fewer people from whom to keep a 6-feet distance.

We are all trying to ignore the fact that nothing is normal. Although we love being able to be together more, the circumstances of it all come crashing down when we are reminded that there is a pandemic. And our 6-year-old, though she is safe from harm, feels palpably uncertain and frightened.

I take her hand and come down to her level, look directly into her eyes and being the scientist-mom that I am I say “but honey, you know that kids are often not affected as badly by this virus, not like adults.” I hope this fact will cheer her up, make her realize she will still celebrate her 7th birthday in the next few weeks. She lifts her head slightly, afraid to look into my eyes. I help lift her head upright, so our eyes meet. There are tears in them, and then she quietly says, “but you still have to go back to work,” the last word trailing like a forgotten song.

The elephant in the room, the thing none of us speak about out loud is the fact that stranger than the pandemic itself is the fact that I have been home for more days in a row than I have since starting residency almost two years ago. I’m a physician completing my residency in San Diego and have been commuting back-and-forth to the Bay Area to be with my family on weekends. Therefore, my family is used to seeing me for no more than 2 to 3 days at a time.

For now, I can complete most of my clinical responsibilities with telemedicine. In this way, I feel fortunate to be able to still continue to care for people in need in spite of the pandemic. However, we all know that this shelter-in-place will eventually come to an end, and then what? Will we go back to normal? Do we want to go all the way back to normal? Despite the logistical challenges of working from home and homeschooling, our children seem to enjoy being immersed in our work lives as much as we have been enmeshed in theirs.

We continued walking in silence, hand-in-hand. I looked over at my husband and our 9-year-old a few steps in front of us. I looked behind us, realizing that we were completely alone on this trail, surrounded by the sweet sounds, smells, and sights of nature. And yet, underneath this seeming calm is a thread of fear and anxiety about our very existence. I wondered, was her fear her own? Was she giving voice to my fear? Was she articulating what so many of us in health care feel and must somehow suffocate or bury deep down in the recesses of our minds so as not to cause even more disruption in the lives of our families?

Our 9-year-old squealed happily as she found yet another roly-poly to add to her growing collection, and she beckoned her younger sister toward her. I was happy to have a moment to hold my husband’s hand, to tell him what our 6-year-old was feeling, and to gauge his sense of how to answer her question, ease her angst. He too had no answers.

I am afraid of contracting the virus. Although I am 38, I’m not completely comforted by this, given the number of young, seemingly healthy people who have become gravely ill with COVID-19. I became a doctor because it is my calling and the profession within which I feel most whole. But it is scary right now seeing the real danger doctors all over the world are facing in this pandemic, risking their lives doing the very thing they love. There is no greater sacrifice.

As we turned the corner back up to our driveway, our 6-year-old took my hand again, and this time with a big toothless smile she kissed the back of my hand and said: “ I am so happy we get to see you every day now even if there is a coronavirus.” I picked her up and held her in my arms, kissed her cheeks, and finally had the courage to say “me too.”

Ogechi Ikediobi is a dermatology resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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