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Globe Magazine

‘I cried in private’: The stress of being a doctor and parent working in a COVID-19 unit

The ways medical professionals try to protect their own families at home, while treating patients at work.

Heather Hsu, who has a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, is usually a pediatric hospitalist and epidemiologist, but when the pandemic hit, she was enlisted to work 12-plus hour shifts in one of BMC’s adult inpatient COVID units.
Heather Hsu, who has a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, is usually a pediatric hospitalist and epidemiologist, but when the pandemic hit, she was enlisted to work 12-plus hour shifts in one of BMC’s adult inpatient COVID units.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

It wasn’t until several days after Genta Baci moved out of the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband and their 7-year-old that the reality sunk in for her son. “Mama is the one that is usually, ‘You have to study, you have to do your work,’” Baci says. “And Dada is, ‘Let’s go do the Legos.’ So at first it was fun.” And then it wasn’t.

Baci is a family medicine doctor at Boston Medical Center, which is the largest safety net hospital in New England and one that was treating an especially large number of infected patients early in the pandemic. As soon as Baci learned she would be working with COVID patients, she decided to rent an apartment so that she wouldn’t worry about infecting her family. She moved in on Wednesday, April 1. By the weekend, her son was complaining of headaches, so Baci brought him a treat after her shift one night. What he really wanted was a hug.

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“But I couldn’t,” Baci says, her voice faltering. “I couldn’t. I was back from work. I just left—and cried in private.”

Over the past three months, parents around the world have struggled to cope with the physical, emotional, and mental demands of illness, job loss, and uncertainty. For many of us, fulfilling our most basic responsibilities—providing for and protecting our children—has come to feel overwhelming, if not impossible. For parent-health care workers treating COVID-infected patients, the pressures and anxieties are magnified exponentially. If they could afford the considerable financial cost, some, like Baci, chose to live apart from their families. Others sent their children to live with relatives, or tried to isolate themselves in their own homes, or simply did the best they could to get by.

While Heather Hsu and her husband worked in COVID units, her sister, Mally Smith (above), left graduate school to watch the couple’s children.
While Heather Hsu and her husband worked in COVID units, her sister, Mally Smith (above), left graduate school to watch the couple’s children.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Heather Hsu, who has a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, is usually a pediatric hospitalist and epidemiologist, but when the pandemic hit, she was enlisted to work 12-plus hour shifts in one of BMC’s adult inpatient COVID units. Hsu’s husband is a critical care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, so one parent living separate from their children wasn’t an option. The most difficult times were when both parents needed to work on the same day. (Hsu’s younger sister, then in graduate school in Scotland, moved in to help care for the kids.)

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“When our son found out neither of us was going to be home for his birthday—he was just over the whole thing,” Hsu says. “There’s a huge emotional toll. One of the things that you do as self-protection is just keep going and wait until downtime to do some processing. It’s hard to know: Am I appropriately exhausted because I’ve been working so much? Am I sneezing because I have allergies? Or am I actually sick?”

Bill Hucker, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, lives with his wife and two children. When he started working with COVID patients, he moved into a hotel—his wife and their 8-year-old daughter both have serious asthma—but “it soon became clear that wouldn’t be sustainable,” he says. Instead, he began self-isolating in the family’s upstairs guest room during the time he was assigned to the COVID unit. “We’re lucky,” he says. “It has its own shower and I have a little fridge in there.” Hucker wore a mask whenever he had to leave his room. If he wanted to talk with his children, they had to sit on a beanbag chair at the bottom of the stairs. That arrangement was especially difficult for his 4½-year-old son. (“He’d be very upset if I left off the ‘half,’” Hucker says.) “Whenever he’d see me, he’d try to grab onto me,” Hucker said at the time. “And every time the little guy fell down and I could hear him cry, I wanted to be there with him. Instead of being able to help out, everything was dumped on his mom.”

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On top of everything else—the exhaustion, the guilt, the fear—the doctors and nurses assigned to work with COVID patients are stripped of virtually everything that makes working in a hospital enjoyable. They wear so much protective gear that it’s hard to recognize colleagues they’ve worked alongside for decades. Most hospitals have instructed staff to communicate with COVID patients by phone instead of in person. And during the surge, the days were punctuated by the dirge-like drumbeat of code blues, which ring out whenever another patient is at risk of death. “They’re constant,” Baci told me in May. “It’s horrible.”

The weekend after we spoke, Baci had two days in a row when she wouldn’t be working with COVID patients. She spent those evenings with her husband and son. I asked her where she was going for support. “I’m a grown-up,” she said. “I’ve learned how to cope.” It was after 10 o’clock. “I should go,” she said. “My shift starts at seven.”

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Seth Mnookin is director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. Follow him on Twitter @sethmnookin and send comments to magazine@globe.com.