The World at War: A Glimpse of Families on the Frontline of the Fight against Coronavirus

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Theodore Ganea

I haven’t been within six feet of my parents or grandmother for the past month.

During this time of crisis, doctors worldwide are facing the novel coronavirus every day, working in hospitals, urgent care facilities, primary care facilities, and even mental health clinics. I’m proud to say that my parents, Dr. Gheorghe Ganea and Dr. Camelia Ganea, are serving on the frontlines of the growing coronavirus battlefield. They run a pediatric primary care practice, which has always been the medical sector’s first line of response to any health crisis, my mom said. Their practice is located in Queens, the epicenter of the New York pandemic with nearly 28,000 cases, according to the New York City Department of Health (NYC DOH).

As the son of two doctors treating coronavirus-positive patients, to say that I’m fearful of coronavirus is an understatement. Even though I’m aware that mortality for humans my age is vanishingly low, I’m terrified that I might accidentally transmit the disease from my parents to my frail grandma, who lives with us and has an enormous risk of dying from coronavirus. I can only imagine the fear that the elderly or children with severe asthma or poorly controlled diabetes might feel, as, unlike me, they are at a substantial risk of dying from contracting coronavirus.

As a result, my parents and I have been taking rigorous precautions to ensure my grandmother and I stay safe. The moment my parents enter our home, they take off all clothes that had contact with the air, such as jackets, button-downs, pants, and shoes, and place them in a designated plastic bag, which they then place in a designated closet. We’ve enforced social distancing protocols even within the house, and I’ve kept at least six feet of distance between myself and my parents and grandmother for at least the past month. In fact, my mom has taken to FaceTiming my grandmother even when they are both in our house, and hasn’t seen my grandmother face to face for the past four days. I know these rigid restrictions are necessary to contain coronavirus to my parents’ practice, but they are incredibly emotionally taxing for me. I miss strolling with my grandma, playing backgammon with my dad, and watching comedy shows on Netflix with my mom. It feels wrong to communicate with my family only behind the incalculably strong barrier of an electronic screen.

FaceTime hasn’t merely dominated my parents’ interactions with me – their contact with patients has also been punted to cyberspace. Before, my mom would maintain close physical contact with her patients. “I’m a hugger,” she said. She added that bringing patients into the doctors’ Queens office ensures that patients would be accurately diagnosed, and made the treatment experience rewarding and energizing for doctor and patient alike. However, in response to the coronavirus crisis, the practice has relied more heavily on telemedicine to slow the spread of coronavirus, meeting with patients over FaceTime instead of in the office. While safer than in-person visits, telemedicine doesn’t cover all needs, as patients still need to receive vaccinations in the office and some illnesses are difficult to diagnose remotely.

To minimize patient-to-patient contact, my parents have also switched to a modified schedule. Patient visits have been spread out at an unprecedented scale for the practice; while the practice used to see many patients each hour, now, the practice only sees a single patient in-person per hour. My dad shut down the practice’s waiting room to prevent patient-to-patient transmission of coronavirus. All healthcare workers in the practice are now required to wear masks, face shields, and an array of other protective gear, and maintain as little physical contact with the patient as possible.

The flip side of seeing fewer patients per hour is working significantly more hours. “Now, we are working practically 24/7 through telemedicine,” Dr. Camelia said. While it may be more work, both doctors agreed that it was their duty to serve patients. For them, the coronavirus crisis has only underlined the capacity of medicine to do good in the world and has enabled doctors to realize their mission of helping as many people as possible. As my mom summarized, “We’re at war.”

This crisis definitely feels like war. Unsurprisingly, both of my parents testify to significant fear among patients and medical workers alike regarding the coronavirus pandemic. “Patients call at unusual hours, in the middle of the night, just to express their fear,” my dad said.

In fact, fear and anxiety about the novel coronavirus have proven to be as dangerous as the disease itself. “A lot of our patients have developed a lot of anxiety-related symptoms that tend to resemble the COVID-19 symptoms, for example, shortness of breath, fatigue, anxiety, and even fever,” my dad said. “They go to the hospital and test negative, and then all their symptoms disappear.” To prevent patients from effectively self-inducing coronavirus, my dad furthered, a crucial role that doctors must play is to reassure their patients and provide psychological comfort, something that social distancing and telemedicine have only made harder to do. To compensate, my parents are having frequent check-ins with all patients to ensure a state of mental and physical wellbeing and to provide them with psychological resources as needed.

The coronavirus crisis has also affected workplace morale, though not in the ways one might expect. At first, coronavirus drove fear throughout the practice. One doctor requested three months’ leave because she feared she would pick up the coronavirus disease and transmit it to her elderly husband, who is at high risk. My mom believes this creates a moral dilemma. Doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath, to “do no harm,” but regardless of whether the aforementioned doctor asked for leave, she would be at risk of violating the Oath. On the one hand, going to work puts her husband at serious risk, but taking leave during this crisis could also leave patients without the care they desperately need. My mom also had the option to take leave to protect my grandma and me. While a tough choice, she concluded, “Again, we’re at war. Right now, I’m a doctor first.”

Although primary care pediatricians are not tending to patients on ventilators from coronavirus – they leave that to hospitals to manage – children frequently carry COVID-19 without ever getting sick from it. As a result, the chances of contracting coronavirus from these pediatric patients is high, causing a “paralyzing fear,” my dad said. In the initial stages of the crisis, little was known about coronavirus mortality. “COVID-19 was an unknown unknown … a silent killer,” he said.

The closing of schools to restrict coronavirus’ spread has created fresh challenges for my parents’ practice. Online schooling has forced many of the practice’s employees to take time off from the frontlines of the war on coronavirus to babysit their children.

Fortunately, as more information has come to light, the coronavirus is becoming a known entity, helping increase morale, Dr. Camelia said. Moreover, Drs. Ganea have focused on elevating their employees’ mood during the crisis. Since there are far fewer in-person patient visits, they’ve taken the time to clean up, and freshen up and reorganize the office. In daily huddles, both doctors regularly go over the latest coronavirus statistics and precautions against COVID-19, which serve to empower the other healthcare workers at the practice. “We’re trying our best to be there for patients and overcome the natural fear,” Dr. Camelia said.

Nevertheless, the work of doctors and healthcare workers worldwide, and the strict compliance with social distancing orders from both individuals and industries, is beginning to flatten the curve. “It’s a tough fight, but we’re winning the war,” Dr. Camelia said. “This too shall pass.”

Personally, I’m in awe at the courage of not only my parents, but of all doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers to face this epidemic every day, who know not whether they too will become another patient or statistic, and the world will grind on without them. Yet almost as important as the war front against coronavirus is the home front. We, the readers, have a responsibility to ensure that the daily sacrifice of our soldiers against COVID-19 will not be in vain. As my mom said, “Stay home, because we can’t.”

Sources:

https://qns.com/story/2020/04/10/coronavirus-count-queens-has-more-than-27000-confirmed-cases-reported-as-death-toll-nears-1500/ – NYC DOH statistics