The Reality of Being a Parent and Health Care Worker Right Now

Photo: Courtesy of Dara Kass.

An interview with an E.R. doctor who had to distance from her family as she recovered from Covid-19

A reality facing many health care professionals right now: If they are a parent, there’s an added layer of stress during this already difficult time. Working in hospitals and doctors’ offices, these first responders face potential exposure to Covid-19 on a regular basis. They are doing everything in their power to help their patients — but at home, they also want to keep their own kids safe.

A number of doctors, nurses, and other health workers have taken painful measures, when possible — from limiting their time with their children to even temporarily moving away from their families, if they’re able.

Dara Kass, a New York City E.R. doctor, recently recovered from Covid-19 herself. She tells us what it was like to isolate away from her family — and predicts how kids’ social interactions might change in the next few months.

Wake-Up Call: You had Covid-19. What precautions did you take at home once you knew you had been infected?

Dr. Dara Kass: I had it in March. My kids had already moved out of my house because back then, we knew it was very contagious, and that there was a high risk of transmission in a family.

One of my kids had a liver transplant when he was a baby. I didn’t want him to get it, certainly not at that early time, when we didn’t know much about it. So my kids moved out before I started seeing patients in the ER for that week. And then I got sick. The infection is very much like a regular viral infection. I recovered. I wasn’t sure if I was contagious, so my kids moved back home. But I moved out to a hotel, so I was away from my kids for about a month.

How has this been the experience for other healthcare professionals? I know there’s a lot of people who are parenting during this pandemic, while also working at hospitals. Have you heard of other people having to separate?

Every parent is making their own choices and deciding what’s right for their family. If my son hadn’t had a liver transplant, I don’t know what I would have done.

I have a lot of friends who are just doing what I’m doing now — it’s kind of like a decontamination protocol when they get home. They’re living at home, but showering after work, and basically keeping all their hospital stuff separate.

I know people that are living in their garage. I know people that have moved into an apartment. The issue is as the pandemic goes on, we need to figure: What does it look like to live and what’s the risk to your family living around your parents? It’s unsustainable to live away from your family for a year.

So we have to figure out, now that we know more about it, now that NYC is a little under control. I mean, when this was starting, we didn’t have enough protective equipment, we didn’t know about the virus. So I think that now we’re starting to know more about the contagion, and more about how to protect ourselves in the hospital. We have fewer patients at the onslaught, so we’re able to be more deliberate about the exposures our families are getting. But that was not the case early on in the beginning.

What has it been like handling homeschooling?

All of our kids had school canceled at the exact same time we all had to go to work a lot. And so one of the things that I’ve been doing over the past couple of weeks is understanding more about homeschooling. It fell to my spouse, but he works in finance so he’s still been busy with work. It fell to my parents, and it fell to my au pair, who was making sure they were in front of the computer at the time they were supposed to be. She was the one who is able to focus every day consistently.

Homeschooling from afar. Photo: Courtesy of Dara Kass.

Are any hospitals offering childcare or schooling assistance for their doctors or other staff members?

It’s changing a lot over time. A lot of hospitals had offered backup childcare and then babysitters couldn’t come. There’s a lot of college students offering tutoring because they’re not really working as hard right now. It’s very community-specific I would say.

Employers are not taking ownership of supporting the education of the kids. There are certainly no gatherings, daycare centers, or even clustered schooling environments out there as far as I know. As we go into the summer, I think we’ll have to reconcile the intersection of being a parent and a frontline healthcare worker. Right now, parenting is a much more engaged and time-consuming activity different from what it was before.

When you were separated from your kids, what were you feeling? I know that as a doctor you knew that you were doing the right thing. As a parent, did you have any feelings of doubt?

If you can find an upside of this pandemic, it’s focused family-time. So in that first month, when I was infected, and my kids were away, and then they came home, but I was gone, everyone else was having these great movie nights, doing some baking and crafting. They were understanding a little bit more about their kids’ schooling. I wasn’t doing any of that. My peers and I didn’t have that.

Our work got more complicated and more uncertain and more anxiety-provoking. For me, there was at least some element of jealousy, of “I wish I could just focus on the movie nights, the popcorn, and the cuddling,” when the idea of touching my children was beyond the scope of anything I could do.

That must’ve been really difficult. Do you now have to consider altered summer plans for your kids?

Yes, I think that all parents should be considering alternative summer plans. It’s very hard to predict what’s going to officially happen with camps. My kids go to overnight camp, and I’m a doctor at an overnight camp.

I don’t see a lot of easy ways to prioritize overnight camp over understanding how to get kids back to school. We can’t even give kids playdates.

As a doctor, do you have any advice for parents trying to ensure they’re keeping their kids safe and protected?

We need to internalize how much we don’t know about this virus. The New York Times recently dropped an article about kids with an inflammatory condition, that might be related to whether or not they’ve had the virus. Everyone is scared because all of a sudden, something is affecting kids

We’ve been very lucky that this virus has completely spared children for whatever reason. There’ve been a couple of kids that have been affected, but they had other medical problems.

We’ve been living under this bubble of protection for our children, but kids are at risk in general for life. They go outside; You have to be sure they’re safe crossing the street.

I think we need to remember that managing our kids and their risk is part of our job as parents. We need to understand the risks, and more importantly, how they affect other members of our families.

Schools closed for parents, because of increased risk of transmission. As parents over the next three months, we need to limit our kids’ interactions with other people just so we can continue to track who they’ve come in contact with. So I think we’re going to start with small gatherings amongst known families.

Or maybe in the city, you open a fire hydrant and you close the block for a block party and you let five kids at a time run through the fire hydrant. We’re going to have to start letting kids be kids over the summer in a very controlled way. I’ve been thinking about how to engage my kids with other kids in a way that doesn’t undermine all the work we’ve done so far.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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