Life without my husband, an ER doctor who moved out so as not to contaminate his family

Helena Dea Bala

THE WASHINGTON POST – My husband is an emergency room (ER) doctor for the biggest hospital system in New York City. His job is to be at the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic. By now, at least a dozen other doctors, several physician assistants and multiple nurses Alex works with have been quarantined because of exposure to the coronavirus. Many have tested positive.

So last week, he moved out. We rented a separate apartment for Alex to live in to protect me and our 19-month-old son in case Alex gets infected.

My father-in-law, an organ transplant recipient and a doctor, called our decision too anxious. “You’ll bankrupt yourself before you catch the coronavirus,” he said. In a group chat, Alex’s colleagues discussed their own preparations; although two or three had thought about separate living arrangements, none planned to go through with it. Some were stocking up on groceries and being more cautious about cleaning. One colleague, also a parent, planned to change out of scrubs before going home.

Separating felt like a big gesture, one we couldn’t comfortably afford. But after hours of talking it over, we decided to err on the side of caution and rent an Airbnb a couple of blocks away. The next day, we walked over with the necessities: Clorox wipes, fresh sheets and towels, clean scrubs, water, snacks, toiletries. It was tiny but cozy, we decided, trying to stay upbeat. I deep-cleaned the apartment, wiping every surface down in a paranoid frenzy, and left the window open to air it out.

Alex left home at six the next morning and took an Uber to his 12-hour shift, on my insistence that he avoid public transit.

While our son was taking his midday nap, we FaceTimed. He was wearing a mask at the computer. “Not too busy,” he reported. “We have to be careful not to assume that everyone has coronavirus. A lot of patients are still coming in with other issues.”

The rest of my day passed uneventfully and indoors. I managed to squeeze in about a half-hour of fitful work while our son played. I tried to keep us on a strict schedule – music, art, cars and dinosaurs – to restore some structure in our son’s day. I noticed that he was becoming clingier than usual, wasn’t sleeping well and started asking to nurse constantly – a habit I’d been weaning him off for months. I feared that he was picking up on our anxiety and downloading this turmoil to his hard drive for the rest of his life.

At around 7.45pm, Alex texted that he was done with work and on his way to the Airbnb. There, he showered and shaved again – a close shave is important for mask efficacy – and he walked home for dinner. We’ve been making the rules up on the fly, and still early in the outbreak, it felt safe enough to have him visit. By next week, it might not.

I was in our kitchen when I heard him knock on the door. I checked my instinct to hug and kiss him hello, and he hung his head to the side.

We’d talked about not over-sentimentalising this: We’re being cautious. We’re doing what’s right for us and those close to us. It’s temporary. A refrain meant to bring us calm.

After he left, I wiped down every surface he touched, and I went to sleep feeling guilty – that he’d come over at all, possibly undoing all our precautions, and that I’d stealthily cleaned up afterward – and alone.

On a Monday, a day off, Alex got on a conference call with ER leadership, which disclosed that at least two doctors had tested positive. One of them, a young parent, was locked in the bedroom while the doctor’s partner tried to keep their toddler away. Someone brought up separate living quarters – would the hospital pay for providers to live separately from families? – and was promised that the issue would be escalated to hospital leadership.

We spent the rest of the day at home. Alex didn’t pick up or play with our son, though he read to him from a distance while wearing a surgical mask. While our son napped, I sat Alex down in our tiny bathroom and gave him the haircut he’d been needing for weeks. We decided that there was no point in being overcautious yet – even if he had been infected the day before, it was too soon for him to shed the virus – but we treated the day like a practice drill. He tried to minimise his footprint in the kitchen and other common areas; I prepared meals for a few days and made him a goody bag – a few pieces of chicken Milanese, cookies, a small Ziploc bag filled with Q-Tips and some packets of vitamin C.

As he was getting ready to leave, we stood by the front door, talking. The sadness that had been stuck at the back of my throat all day translated itself into tears. I told Alex that the other night, while he was working, I had been drying our son off after a bath when he unexpectedly said, “Papa, Papa!”

“Yes, what about Papa?” I had asked him. “Papa, work! Bye-bye!” he said. It was the first time that our son had put words together to form little toddler sentences.

“I looked at him today,” Alex told me, “and he was all toddler, all of a sudden. The baby was gone. And I couldn’t even hug him.”

I wanted to comfort my husband and be comforted, to process what was happening together. I feared the effects of this time apart on our mental health, on us as a couple and on our son. More than anything, I wanted to hug him. But that would defeat the whole purpose.

Alex’s next two shifts – 12-hour overnights – were brutal. He called me on a Wednesday morning after work, and he sounded scared: Lots of intubations, some really sick people, over 20 positive patients. “I see the worst of the worst, and last night was bad,” he told me. “Everyone is nervous.”

Almost overnight, everything had changed. Nurses and doctors were making arrangements to sleep away from their families – some in guest bedrooms, others in basements. Those who had the option sent their kids away to be cared for by family. An employee wearing scrubs had been threatened by a fellow passenger on public transit and accused of spreading the virus, so the hospital was counselling all employees against wearing uniforms or badges in public. Bottles of hand sanitiser and boxes of face masks were disappearing from hospital supply closets, Tylenol from pharmacy shelves. With each passing day, the tally of infected and symptomatic doctors and nurses grew.

A few times, during anxious spirals, I punched my worst-case scenarios into Google, looking for reassurance in the data. Whatever optimism I managed was quickly supplanted by Alex’s notes from the front lines. He was making difficult decisions about balancing the safety of patients and staff, with minimal and often contradicting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Should a dying patient’s wife be allowed to sit with him as he passes away? Do you test a symptomatic father with a five-day-old at home even though he doesn’t meet the criteria? Many of the ventilators available in the hospital were already occupied – would Alex soon face choices about whose life to save? News abounded of dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment – the CDC was advising doctors to use a scarf or bandanna to protect themselves. And yet, on the ride home after a heartbreaking shift, a still sceptical Uber driver had asked Alex, “Are you really seeing coronavirus patients?”