What a great year I had in 2019.
I graduated from medical school, gave birth to my first born, Ethan, and six weeks later in July I started my pediatrics residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. My husband, Nate, was sailing into his career as a data analyst. We were busy, but life was blossoming as we had hoped.
Then 2020 came.
My schedule was increasingly demanding — no surprise for an intern. Nate was finding ways to accommodate my crazy, unpredictable intern schedule to take care of Ethan, on many days and nights like a single father.
In March, the “stay home” directive came for Los Angeles County. I was working the night shift on the inpatient pediatrics ward managing sick kids and admitting new patients from the emergency room. The children had the usual maladies, such as asthma attacks, appendicitis and pneumonia. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But I wasn’t home much, and I was running out of steam.
When Nate announced that he could start working from home, I was elated. I hate to admit it, but the slowing down with COVID-19 almost sounded like a dream come true. I thought it meant that Nate and I would have time together, while Ethan would be at daycare. We were excited about hitting the pause button.
That was mid-March.
Soon, reality woke us from that fantasy, and COVID-19 changed our lives in ways that we never imagined. We stayed healthy, but Nate was laid off. A day later, the daycare was closed. Suddenly, my hospital duties, on top of my responsibilities as a wife and mother, seemed overwhelming.
Although I didn’t have any pediatric patients with COVID-19 at that time, I was dealing with unexpected psychological stress being in the hospital, mentally preparing for a possible surge and fearing the unknown. At times, even riding the elevator seemed scary, because of possible exposure to the coronavirus.
I was in constant fear that I would bring the deadly virus home. I didn’t feel like I could seek support from my non-hospital friends, because I didn’t want to unknowingly expose them to COVID-19. With no family nearby, I felt hopeless.
Nate and I continued to feign optimism and try to support each other, but I could see us unraveling, individually and as a couple. And finally, out of nowhere, we exploded. We argued loudly in front of Ethan — he was scared. I don’t remember the issue, but whatever it was, it seemed like such a big deal.
Ethan seemed to know something was wrong. He looked at both of us, started whining and then crawled toward me for a hug. With pangs of guilt, I picked him up. He looked across the room at his father with his sweet, innocent face and started to laugh hysterically like a circus clown, trying to make us laugh. Thankfully, Ethan’s irresistible smiles broke our argument into silliness, followed by apologies and a rational, problem-solving conversation. Ethan was the therapist we needed.
In normal times, medical training is challenging and stressful. The amount of time away from loved ones can bring giants to their knees. Add in the fears and uncertainties of a pandemic, I’m amazed that anyone, and any relationships, are surviving.
Perhaps prior to COVID-19, many medical trainees, and perhaps others, have already been practicing social distancing from their spouse and other family members, because of the demands of our jobs, mental health or avoiding chaotic situations. Time spent apart may have served as the necessary buffer for some relationships, both healthy and fragile ones.
A Bloomberg News article, “China’s Divorce Spike Is a Warning to Rest of Locked-Down World,” reports that “uncouplings surged” and there were a record-high number of divorce filings in March in China following the quarantine orders.
Susan Myres, president of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said in her interview with ABC News that the same trend was emerging in the United States. “We are fielding calls right now from people who are tired of being in the same house with each other,” said Myers.
In “usual times,” the divorce rate among physicians is about 25 percent, according to a 2015 report in the British Medical Journal. We don’t yet know the impact of the pandemic.
But Nate and I don’t want to be one of those statistics.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a swirl of emotions — fear and anxiety with the extended quarantine, health concerns, financial strain and, perhaps hardest of all, the uncertainty. I can’t even imagine the horror of life-and-death decisions mixed with all of the other worries that doctors faced in New York.
I overcame my fears for my family’s well-being and working in the hospital. Internship during the pandemic has made me feel like “a real doctor.” I am doing something meaningful, and I feel more prepared to take care of anyone who comes my way.
Thankfully, Nate quickly got a great new job and Ethan’s daycare opened after three weeks. Life seems to be settling into our “new normal.” I recognize that with relatively stable income and housing, my family is among the fortune. My heart goes out to the families, such as many of my patients at Harbor-UCLA, who are struggling to make ends meet, while also navigating all of their responsibilities and relationships, during the pandemic.
Nate and I are still on a coronavirus learning curve, but I want to share some advice: seek help from a wise counselor — for us it was Ethan — but professionals are there to help. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, admit your flaws, address the conflicts with compassion and apologize to others — if possible while your children are watching. This isn’t just good marriage advice, it’s also good parenting to model healthy conflict resolution.
- Coping with anxiety during the pandemic
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Advice from UC Berkeley experts
Dr. Shelly Tseng is a pediatric intern at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and an advocate for building healthy relationships.
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