Coronavirus Pandemic Takes A Toll On ER Doctors' Health And Families | Michigan Radio
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Coronavirus Pandemic Takes A Toll On ER Doctors' Health And Families

Mar 28, 2020
Originally published on March 28, 2020 8:17 am

Joe Pinero's after-work routine has changed recently.

"I strip outside of my door, take basically all my clothes off and walk in naked and just get directly into a shower when I do come into the house," Pinero said.

But he doesn't think his neighbors in Hoboken, N.J., mind too much, because they know he works as an emergency room doctor.

"If anyone has seen me naked, I'm sorry. But it's probably gonna happen again," he said with a laugh.

Like other emergency room workers, Pinero is on the front lines of treating the coronavirus pandemic. For many doctors and nurses, that means working long hours while dealing with worries about their own health and the fear of exposing their loved ones.

Pinero is trying to reduce the risk to his wife and 19-month-old son. He wears protective gear like masks when he works with potentially infected patients. But his workplace, like so many hospitals in the United States, is facing a tight supply.

It's an especially stressful time, because Pinero's wife was expecting their second child, who was born on Friday.

"I'm glad that I can do this job and can be there for people in a time of crisis, but at the same time, it's impossible to ignore the danger that I put my whole family in because I do this job," Pinero said.

Dara Kass, an ER doctor and medical school professor at Columbia University in New York City, has taken special precautions to protect her family.
Dara Kass

He said he considered missing the birth out of fear of exposing his wife and child, but decided to go, wearing a protective mask.

Dara Kass, an ER doctor and medical school professor at Columbia University in New York City, also has taken special precautions to protect her family.

She has three children, one of whom had a liver transplant when he was 2, which could put him at greater risk, she said.

"One of my first concerns when I knew this was happening...was that if I was going to be in the ER taking care of patients, I couldn't be in the same house as my child," Kass said.

Kass recently sent all three of her children away, to live with her parents in New Jersey while she treats coronavirus patients.

And she's glad she did; Kass started coming down with coronavirus symptoms just a few days later. Kass tested positive for the virus, but said she's improving and already back to seeing patients using telemedicine.

Dr. Kass recently sent all three of her children away, to live with her parents in New Jersey while she treats coronavirus patients.
Erin Gitlin

In Topeka, Kan., Michelle Schierling said her ER has been strangely quiet in recent days, but she and her colleagues are bracing themselves as they watch what's happening in places like New York.

"All of our staff suddenly are homeschooling and all of them are working — and obviously necessary staff that can't work from home. So they're navigating a lot right now," she said. "It just feels like a wave is coming but it's not here yet; we know it's gonna hit, we just don't know when."

Schierling said she's worried her hospital will run out of critical supplies, and she fears potentially exposing her children's caregiver, a woman in her 70s, to the virus.

Michelle Schierling said her ER in Topeka, Kansas, has been strangely quiet in recent days, but she and her colleagues are bracing themselves as they watch what's happening in places like New York.
Luke Schierling

"This is something that we have not experienced in the lifetime of our careers," said Dr. Aisha Terry, a board member with the American College of Emergency Physicians. "We're truly very concerned, and even to some degree some are fearful, about their safety and the safety of their loved ones at home."

For Kass, the New York doctor who tested positive for coronavirus, rearranging her personal life to accommodate her work is just part of the job. But she said she's been frustrated by mixed messages from the White House.

"There's not one ER doctor lamenting the situation we're in because we think we belong anywhere else," Kass said. "What we're lamenting is the [lack of] support we're being given, specifically from the federal government, and the position we're being put in by the inaction and the gaslighting."

Kass said like doctors around the country, she's concerned about shortages of protective equipment like masks and gowns that have been promised by the Trump administration. But Kass said this kind of crisis is what she and others ER doctors have trained for, and they'll keep caring for coronavirus patients — as long as they can stay healthy themselves.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Emergency-room doctors and other medical personnel are at the frontlines of treating highly contagious patients infected with the coronavirus. For many, that means working long hours while worrying about their own health, not of their loved ones. NPR's Sarah McCammon spoke to ER doctors about how they're rearranging their lives to try to keep their families safe while caring for an onslaught of patients.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Joe Pinero's afternoon routine has changed a little bit in recent days.

JOE PINERO: I strip outside of my door, take basically all my clothes off and walk in naked and just get directly into a shower when I do come into the house.

MCCAMMON: Pinero doesn't think his neighbors in Hoboken, N.J. mind too much because they know what he does for a living. He works as an ER doctor. And he's been trying to reduce the risk of exposing his wife and 19-month-old son to clothing that might be contaminated.

PINERO: So if anyone has seen me naked, I'm sorry. But it's probably going to happen again.

MCCAMMON: Pinero has been wearing protective gear like masks when he works with potentially infected patients. But he says his workplace, like so many U.S. hospitals, is facing a tight supply. It's been an especially stressful time because Pinero's wife has been expecting their second child, who was born yesterday.

PINERO: I'm glad that I can do this job, and I can be there for people in a time of crisis. But at the same time, it's impossible to ignore the danger that I've put my whole family at because I do this job.

MCCAMMON: Pinero says he thought about skipping the birth out of fear of exposing his wife and child. But he went anyway wearing a mask. Dara Kass, an ER doctor and medical school professor at Columbia University in New York City, also has taken special precautions to protect her family. She has three kids, one of whom had a liver transplant when he was 2, which could put him at greater risk.

DARA KASS: One of my first concerns when I knew this was happening was that, if I was going to be in the ER taking care patients, I couldn't live in the same house as my child.

MCCAMMON: Kass recently sent all three of her children away to live with relatives in New Jersey while she's treating coronavirus patients in New York City. And she's glad she did because she started coming down with coronavirus symptoms just a few days later.

KASS: I had muscle aches, fatigue, a little bit of cough, shortness of breath and loss of taste and a headache.

MCCAMMON: Kass says she tested positive for the virus, but she's improving and already back to seeing patients using telemedicine. In Topeka, Kan., Michelle Schierling says her ER has been strangely quiet in recent days. But she and her colleagues are bracing themselves as they watch what's happening in places like New York.

MICHELLE SCHIERLING: All of our staff suddenly are homeschooling. And all of them are working - and obviously necessary staff that can't work from home. So they're navigating a lot right now. It just feels like a wave is coming. But it's not here yet. We know it's going to hit. We just don't know when.

MCCAMMON: Schierling says she's worried her hospital will run out of critical supplies. And she's fearful of potentially exposing her children's caregiver, a woman in her 70s, to the virus. Dr. Aisha Terry, a board member with the American College of Emergency Physicians, says it's a tense time for doctors and other medical professionals.

AISHA TERRY: This is something that we have not experienced in the lifetime of our careers. So I would say, for the first time, for the majority of emergency physicians, we're truly very concerned. And even to some degree, some are fearful about your safety and the safety of your loved ones at home.

MCCAMMON: For Kass, the New York doctor who tested positive for coronavirus, rearranging her personal life to accommodate her work is just part of the job. But she says she's been frustrated by mixed messages from the White House.

KASS: There's not one ER doctor lamenting the situation we're in because we think we belong anywhere else. What we're lamenting is the support we're being given, specifically from the federal government, and the position are being put in by the inaction and the gaslighting.

MCCAMMON: Like doctors around the country, Kass says she's concerned about shortages of equipment that's been promised by the Trump administration. But she says this kind of crisis is what she and other ER doctors have trained for. And they'll keep caring for coronavirus patients as long as they can stay healthy themselves. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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