Fighting Coronavirus Means I Haven’t Seen My Kids for a Month

Fighting Coronavirus Means I Haven’t Seen My Kids for a Month


As coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, we’re working to answer the questions on many parents’ minds. For the latest updates, read The New York Times’s live coronavirus coverage here.

It’s been four weeks since I’ve seen my kids, and I’m starting to miss them.

On March 14, my mother-in-law, a retired United Nations worker who had participated in pandemic drills, saw the writing on the wall and announced that we should send the boys to her in Connecticut.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “They haven’t closed the schools.”

“They will definitely close the schools,” she said over the phone. “And you need to be at the hospital.”

I was still in denial about the impact the coronavirus would have on everyone’s life, even though as a hospital-based doctor, I was already taking care of the first few patients with Covid-19 at the Midtown Manhattan hospital where I work.

My husband and I reluctantly agreed to send our two sons away, and the next evening, after the boys were already at their grandmother’s house, on the Ides of March, the New York City public schools were closed.

“We’re lucky,” I told my husband. We didn’t have to scramble for child care. The intensity at both of our jobs was ratcheting up — while my work was at the hospital, my husband’s law practice was seeing a tsunami of new legal work related to the pandemic.

“When do you think we’ll see them again?” he asked.

“Maybe in two weeks?”

The weekend the kids left was a blur — I spent most of it at the hospital. Covid-19 had arrived, but tests were scarce. The New York City Department of Health had a small number of test kits that were meted out to hospitals around the city with stringent guidelines about who should be tested — only people who had been in China or had contacts with those who had tested positive. Patients who were already hospitalized with pneumonias and fevers were not eligible for testing.

Over the weekend, a patient who had recently been discharged after treatment for non-coronavirus-related symptoms returned within 24 hours, febrile and coughing. The E.R. sent one of the few Covid-19 swabs we still had. When the test returned positive, I felt my stomach lurch. I couldn’t help but think of the classic horror movie trope: “The call is coming from inside the house.”

The patient had probably had Covid-19 for most of his prior hospitalization. This was when I realized that the kids wouldn’t be back anytime soon.

“You must miss your kids,” people at work would say.

I didn’t miss them for the first couple of weeks. I channeled my blackest, stoniest heart — the one I had developed when I sleep trained them as babies and when I dropped them off at day care as tiny weeks-old bundles after returning to work from maternity leave. The same cold heart that threw away their pacifiers the way the pediatrician recommended, and more recently, the one that frequently declines to chaperone school field trips.

I told my colleagues that the kids were having a great time in Connecticut. They were riding bikes and chasing chickens. They weren’t cooped up in a New York City apartment. And I wasn’t cooped up with them in a New York City apartment.

At work, though, it was hard to nurture a heart of stone. Staff would burst into tears at nursing stations. Co-workers were getting sick. Family members of colleagues were hospitalized. New Yorkers were beginning to panic. My usually phlegmatic colleagues broke down.

“Both my husband and I are health care workers,” one said. “I’m scared.”

The patients with Covid-19 were hermetically sealed in their isolation rooms, forbidden to have visitors. I’d gear up with my personal protective equipment, and make my way into their rooms, listen to their lungs, check their oxygen levels and give a pep talk.

“This is a waiting game,” I’d say through my N95 mask.

“But do you think I’m going to die?” they asked.

At the end of a 12-hour shift, I’d go home and spend 15 minutes FaceTiming with my sons. Most of the time the phone would show the ceiling at their grandmother’s house, or the wallpaper to the left of where one of my son’s faces might be, just out of the frame.

“I can’t see you,” I’d say. “I can only see the wall.”

“Show me the Magna-Tiles,” my 5-year-old would say.

Some days were exhilarating. I’d taken care of thousands of pneumonias, but Covid-19 didn’t seem to have a playbook. The disease course was still uncertain and we saw patterns emerge in real time. We tried treatments I had never used before, like a strategy called “awake proning” where patients lie on their stomachs to improve the flow of oxygen to their lungs. I texted with medical friends around the country. Are you seeing liver abnormalities? Are you prescribing steroids? Some patients with Covid-19 would worsen suddenly, and I had the luxury of staying late to take care of them. My kids were in Connecticut building fairy houses out of sticks and leaves.

“Logistically, this is better for everyone,” I’d tell co-workers. I hoped it was better for everyone.

Other days were harder. A patient, and then a colleague, died of Covid-19. I had just seen both of them, and abruptly they were gone. Health care administrators started to use military language to describe the pandemic response: Staff were deployed. We were fighting an invisible enemy. Thanks to everyone in the trenches. My kids would appear fuzzy on FaceTime, hair wet from their bath, belly buttons peeking out from their pajamas. My 8-year-old son was hard to read. He would leave the call quickly.

“How many more days?” the 5-year-old asked. “How many more days ’til we come back to ’York?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, and I still don’t know. Sometimes I think my kids’ sense of time is limited to five-minute warnings and 30-minute TV shows. Over the last few weeks I’ve hoped that it is. Still, I realize, like the rest of the world, my boys want to know when they can return to their regular life of bunk beds, circle time, playgrounds and scooters.

I’m eager to know when I can scoop them up, sniff the tops of their heads and prepare snack plates that they won’t eat.

“Soon,” I say. “Soon.”

Grace Farris, M.D., is chief of hospital medicine at Mount Sinai West in New York City.



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