Vulnerability gives us strength in a time when so much seems beyond our control


I pull my car into the garage and exhale wearily.  I’ve just finished rounds at the hospital, including PUIs for COVID-19.  I’m lucky.  I get a new N95 every day, but still, I’ve seen the steady reports of diligent physicians getting infected, so I know I must be careful.  I strip off my scrubs in the garage and put them straight into the washer. I go straight to the shower, where a bottle of Hibiclens has replaced my vanilla body wash.  On my dresser sits a box containing a digital thermometer, an electronic blood pressure cuff, a portable pulse ox, and an incentive spirometer—what I jokingly refer to as my “in case I get COVID home kit.”  It’s funny, but it isn’t.  I’m a single mom of three beautiful children, ages 15, 14 and 8.  I’m also a frontline physician during the COVID-19 pandemic.  If I get hospitalized, I’m unsure of who would take in 3 kids exposed to a potentially deadly virus. We live in a wonderful rural community, and I’m certain someone would volunteer to help.  Still, I’d sleep better at night with a solid plan.

I sigh and format a to-do list in my head: finish charting on the telehealth visits I did in clinic yesterday (am I doing everything I can for them?), prepare a didactic lecture for our residents, dishes, laundry, redo my monthly budget to account for my recent pay cut, meal planning for the week, grocery, sweep and mop, call and check on my mom, convince the kids to do their chores, and then homeschool for 9th, 8th and 2nd grade.  My teenage daughter argues with me that her friends are having sleepovers and calls me “overprotective.”   I try to explain “executive stay at home” orders.  She rolls her eyes but relents.  I make a mental note to call my autistic son’s principal week to discuss strategies to coax him to catch up with his schoolwork. My youngest is certainly beyond her daily 2-hour screen time limit.  I’m doing everything I can to physically protect them from this virus, but the concern over what long-lasting psychological effects this will have on our children is starting to grow.

A female resident recently approached me about switching shifts so she could tend to a family issue, and I sensed stress under her N95 and face shield.  She divulged that her new role as a “full-time teacher” was not exactly going as planned.  We spent a few moments (and some laughs) discussing how our roles as mom, wife, daughter, and physician have changed so quickly during this pandemic.   We are diverse but share many similarities.  Together, we are not alone.

We all knew this pandemic was going to change how we practiced medicine, but I, personally, was not prepared for how much it would challenge the work-life balance that I have spent years carefully maneuvering.  Female physicians are often hesitant to express individual needs for fear of being viewed as “weak.” I’m finding freedom in removing the stigma of weakness and shame from my own concept of vulnerability.   It can unite and connect us, giving us strength and empowerment in a time when so much seems beyond our control.

Erica Gillette is a family physician.

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