As a general surgeon, being called into the emergency room to perform a bedside procedure is par for the course. After gathering the standard list of supplies, I ran through another checklist before entering the room of a recent patient. N95, surgical mask on top, eye protection, impervious gown, gloves. Since my patient was COVID positive, I double-checked everything before I unzipped the isolation barrier to enter her room. I didn’t want to doff all my PPE for a forgotten syringe.
Very routine, and in this strangest of times, also anything but. After finishing up at the hospital, I headed home. I entered through our backdoor, stripped-down outside the entrance, and beelined for our shower. I tossed all the clothes directly into the laundry and gave my husband the all-clear so he could return from a walk. My four-year-old gets excited when I come home, and I didn’t want her to catch me in a big hug before I had “decontaminated.”
I am vaccinated, and I am lucky enough to practice in an area that takes COVID seriously and that mostly has enough PPE. It makes going to work a little less stressful, especially since my husband is not a health care worker. He’s also not over the age of 65, and he works from home.
When this pandemic started, I was about five months pregnant. When my health system asked for volunteers in the case of a surge, I signed up right away, as did so many of my colleagues. My husband tried to be supportive, but he was nervous about my decision and scared for our family. It literally wasn’t just me after all; my now nine-month-old son was my captive audience.
When they asked if I would be willing to draw on my critical care and trauma training to perform more high-risk bedside procedures should ICU coverage become thin I again volunteered myself, plus one.
Thankfully, it never came to that where I practice. A year into this pandemic, we are all safe and healthy. There have been scares during which I have had to quarantine from my family, pumping to keep my milk supply up while I was away from my infant son.
None of this is extraordinary. My story is a very tame example of the incredible sacrifices physicians, nurses, environmental service workers, and all health care personnel have made over the last year. Time and time again, they have put themselves in harm’s way to serve the greater good.
And when we come home, we have dodged our family members, snuck into side doors, stripped down in secret, and hurriedly scrubbed ourselves clean. My husband has knowingly and unknowingly been exposed by proxy, yet another small sacrifice we make to do this work.
As I focused on my scalpel, uttering soothing words to calm my patient’s fears, I tried to ignore her deep and persistent cough. I am vaccinated, and I had every bit of PPE I would need to keep myself safe. The risk is low, but as she coughed, I thought of my husband. He has shared in this risk, in no small part.
I completely understand why partners of health care providers were not at the front of the line for the vaccine. But I don’t think they should be last, either. I have friends who have lied to get their spouses vaccinated, and while I have not done so, I don’t blame them either. My husband didn’t sign up for this; he didn’t go to medical school. Teachers who have been distance learning for over a year with nearly zero risk of exposure are getting vaccinated, as are childcare providers. My husband, and the partners of health care workers everywhere, deserve to be vaccinated as well. Their risk is far greater than some of these other categories, but many of these otherwise young and healthy individuals will still be waiting months by current guidelines.
Maybe it’s time to include them. We have been thanking health care workers for over a year. This would be a way to put those kind words into action.
Zeenat Hasan is a general surgeon.
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