A nurse holds a patient’s hand, seeing fear in his eyes. A two-doctor couple struggles to care for twin girls. As an emergency-room physician walks home alone after a long night, the only sound is the piercing wail of ambulance sirens, one after another.
These are some of the medical workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic, exposed to the virus that has ravaged the world while balancing their personal lives with a public mission.
As the U.S. outstripped other countries in coronavirus deaths, physicians and nurses describe what their lives are like now while caring for sick and dying patients.
An ER Nurse’s Power of Touch
On a recent Saturday, emergency-room nurse Petranka Stoeva helped put a young, Spanish-speaking man on a ventilator at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital, one of the public hospitals run by New York City. He looked scared, the 49-year-old nurse recalls. She spoke to him in her broken Spanish, soothing him, and touched his face with her gloved hand.
“It wasn’t even that he wanted to speak. For him, it was just to hold his hand,” says Ms. Stoeva. “You could see the tears in his eyes. His eyes were saying, ‘I trust you.’ I don’t know how to explain it. It was very emotional.”
Even under the coronavirus threat, Ms. Stoeva doesn’t avoid touching her patients. Touch can be a nurse’s greatest tool: holding a hand, wiping away a tear, stroking a face. It is needed more than ever when Covid-19 patients are isolated in the hospital, Ms. Stoeva says.
“These are humans, they need to be held,” she says. “They don’t have their family to take their hand and to support them.”
Once home in Queens, it all hits her: the illness she sees all around her, the fear.
“I just want to close my eyes and forget about the day,” she says. “And then I get up with positive thoughts, and I go and do my job again. The same thing, over and over. I’m just doing my job. That’s all. The priority is to save lives.”
Like a War Zone
Emergency-room physician Tsion Firew worked in Mosul, Iraq, amid fighting in 2017. She has practiced medicine in developing countries such as Ghana, Haiti, and Ethiopia, where she is an adviser to the minister of health. She never thought she would experience similar working conditions in Manhattan.
“It feels like a dream,” says Dr. Firew, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University. “I can’t believe this is happening here in New York City. It feels like I’m back in a war zone, except there are no bullets flying.”
Adding to the strain, colleagues and other health-care providers at the Manhattan hospital where she works are out sick.
Dr. Firew was supposed to fly to Ethiopia for work in March, but exposure to someone with the virus kept her grounded in New York. She returned to work after a period of self-quarantine. But she recently tested positive for Covid-19 and had to self-quarantine again. She is slated to return to work this week.
While at home in Manhattan, she often has Zoom calls with officials in Ethiopia who are eager to hear about what’s going on. She worries about how the developing world will handle the continuing pandemic.
“What happens with this disease when it spreads in places like Africa and lower income countries?” she says. “If New York can’t handle it right now, what’s going to happen?”
An Agonizing Choice
Shivani Mody’s duties as an emergency-medicine physician include helping organize the pandemonium in Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center, such as putting patients on ventilators and calling family members of the sick and dying.
Amid it all she makes time to pump breast milk for her 6-month-old son, Jaiden. “If I’m lucky in a 12-hour shift I have time to pump once,” says the 33-year-old.
Dr. Mody says she is terrified of bringing the virus to her husband and baby, and has considered sending her son to a relative, or sleeping in a separate bedroom. But so far she hasn’t taken those steps. “It would be really heartbreaking to not see my child, and I’m still breast-feeding, which is something I feel really passionate about,” she says.
To minimize the risk, she is diligent about decontaminating everything she brings home—pens, stethoscope, goggles—and leaves what gear she can at work. She changes into new scrubs before coming home, and has her husband leave the door open so she doesn’t have to use keys or touch the door handle when she gets there. All her clothes go straight into the washing machine, and she takes a shower. She then puts on gloves and cleans anything she might have touched on her way through the house.
“Since this started, I feel like there’s just this constant underlying anxiety: What’s going to happen today? Am I going to get sick? Am I going to bring it home?” she says. “There are definitely days where it feels scary and overwhelming.”
One of her first encounters with Covid-19 was with a young father who was treated in her department. “It was really traumatic, he was one of the first patients that was really sick, and he was really young and he was sitting there talking to me,” she says.
The patient’s wife asked how many days he would be in the hospital. One? Two? Dr. Mody didn’t have good answers. He eventually had to be put on a ventilator. Dr. Mody followed his ICU stay, and saw that he recently got discharged, after about four weeks.
“I felt so grateful that he did get to go home and go back to his family,” she says. “Those stories make you hopeful.”
Two Physicians, Two Parents
When Dr. Puja Kohli reads her 3-year-old twin daughters a bedtime story at home, she now wears a surgical mask to protect them from the new coronavirus.
Dr. Kohli and her husband, Dr. Pradeep Natarajan, both 37 years old, are physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and deeply involved in battling Covid-19. Dr. Kohli, a pulmonary and critical-care physician, manages an intensive-care unit that now treats only Covid-19 patients. Dr. Natarajan, the director of preventive cardiology, is helping staff in a newly created unit designed for Covid-19 patients with heart issues. His cardiovascular genetics research lab is studying the genetics of Covid-19 susceptibility.
“It’s incredibly stressful being a dual medical couple taking care of Covid-19 patients and having small children not in school,” Dr. Kohli says.
The couple is dedicated to caring for patients fighting the coronavirus. At the same time, as parents, they worry about their children getting sick, says Dr. Kohli.
“We also worry about them being asymptomatic carriers and giving it to the nanny or someone else.”
Their twin girls, Kareena and Roshni, turn four in May. The doctors try to stagger their hospital schedules so they aren’t working at the same time, but that is growing increasingly difficult.
“We’ve been very vigilant in protecting ourselves,” says Dr. Natarajan. They have been wearing masks and gloves in public for weeks to limit the possibility that one of them could fall ill, leaving the other to take care of the twins.
The children’s grandparents don’t live nearby and the doctors canceled March plans for them to visit, fearing their parents’ potential exposure to the virus.
There aren’t many days off that they both have off together lately. But when they happen, the couple drive their girls an hour or so away for lunch, hot chocolate and an outdoor walk while maintaining social distancing from other people.
“If we get sick we won’t be able to help,” Dr. Natarajan says. “This is the time where our skill set is needed.”
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8