Moms on the Frontline
A tribute to mothers who are serving double duty caring for COVID-19 patients at work while also balancing family life at home during the pandemic.
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They are frontline warriors battling the deadly virus that has rocked the world.
By day, they are nurses, doctors and medical experts whose work centers on protecting and caring for their patients, colleagues and community during a global pandemic.
But at home, they have another title: mom.
And after long hours combating COVID-19, many reunite with families. They change clothes in their garage before giving hugs. They tuck their kids into bed. They check Google classrooms and help with homework. They soothe fears children may have about their jobs.
Others don’t go home – living separately from their families as an extra measure of protection.
They’re mothers who put themselves in the path of the virus everyday while also balancing the needs of their own families. This Mother’s Day, we salute them. Here are some of their stories:
Soon after the first cases of novel coronavirus were reported in Wuhan, China in December, 2019, Michigan Medicine epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist Laraine Washer, M.D., knew life was about to change.
Within weeks, the virus had reached the U.S. and by March, Washer was part of a core hospital team managing a public health crisis.
In her more than 20-year career she had helped guide the institution on planning for infection prevention with influenza, measles and Ebola among other infections.
Now, it was SARS-CoV-2.
Daily phone calls turned into 12-hour shifts at the hospital’s Command Center to help plan, map and execute the hospital’s response.
As information rapidly evolved by the hour, she helped separate facts from fiction on how the virus spread, risks of exposure and the best measures to protect patients and employees.
“There were many unknowns and that sometimes meant more questions than answers,” she says. “Our top goal was to quickly take all necessary steps to keep everyone at the hospital safe and limit the spread of the disease.
“I’m grateful to be part of such a great team that stepped up to the plate to do what we needed to do.”
Meanwhile, her team at home, which includes husband John, sons Grant, 13 and Jack,17, got a more up close view of the virus’ impact through their mom.
“Lately, my boys have been a bit more interested in the work I’m doing and how that plays into what they hear about the pandemic in the news,” Washer says. “As they are getting older, they are used to me working a lot and understand why I do it.”
Managing remote schoolwork and other teen responsibilities has sometimes been challenging. But the shutdown has also allowed her family to spend more down time together, which has included board games, movie nights and playing with their 1-year-old puppy Soarin.
When registered nurse Sarah Erickson pulls up to her house these days, she stays inside her car while her three children each do their own hand signal from six feet away outside.
“Each kid has chosen their own special sign to represent a hug between us,” says Erickson, who works in the Emergency Department helping triage, assess and treat patients for COVID-19.
She misses the real hugs. But she doesn’t want to take any chances because of 6-year-old son Logan, who has a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot and has had six open heart surgeries. After he was flown to Ann Arbor by Survival Flight in 2017, Erickson and husband John decided to move from Iowa to Michigan to be closer to his heart team at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
The kindergartner is also the reason Erickson opted to temporarily live separately from her family, including her other children, Dylan, 12, and Drew,9.
“I've been living in the hotel for three weeks and am beyond grateful to Michigan Medicine for providing this as an option,” she says. “It's emotionally exhausting, but the feeling of relief knowing that my family is safe and healthy has made it all worth it.”
She says she feels guilt for not being able to be part of her children’s remote schooling or physically comfort them. But she also wants to be there for her patients, many who “come to us on what is often one of the worst days of their lives.”
“My kids don't fully understand the sacrifice we're making as a family, but they know it's to help others,” she says. “I feel that they have learned dedication, compassion and bravery from watching me throughout this pandemic. I am not without fear or anxiety, but I go to work every day ready to serve. Nursing is not a job, but a calling and when it's all hands on deck, you do what you can to help your team and your patients.”
From behind a glass door, Tingting Xiong reads “Pete the Cat” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” to daughters Aurora, 4 and Irisa, 2. It’s often the closest the hospitalist gets to them during periods when she’s caring for COVID-19 patients.
Because her mother-in-law lives with her and is at-risk, Xiong, B.M, Ph.D., has sometimes stayed at a hotel for five to 10 days at a time, stopping by for breaks to say hi through the window.
When she is home, she isolates herself in the basement. And family walks usually mean her husband Weiyi Wang and daughters are on one side of the street while she strolls parallel to them on the other side.
The girls are too young to completely grasp the situation but Aurora proudly says that “mommy is fighting the virus.”
While it has been an adjustment for her own family, Xiong knows how meaningful her work is for other families.
“COVID-19 patients are suffering not only physically but also mentally, with tremendous amount of worry and fear,” Xiong says. “Every patient is going through a different journey and we as the providers, are their only company. When you see them get better and go home, it feels like you just won a battle together.”
But she looks forward to enjoying more normal family time soon.
“In the days I don’t live at home, I FaceTime with my family every day,” she says. “My girls usually tell me how was their day is going and show me new skills they’ve learned. Knowing that they’re safe and sound and happy is the most reassuring thing in these days when there is so much uncertainty out there.”
The biggest thing she’s looking forward to post-pandemic: “I will kiss and hug them so many times.”
For physician Jean Carstensen, M.D., the pandemic has compounded the challenges of being a full time single mom.
And she’s relied heavily on her village, from her longtime nanny to neighbors who have offered to pick up groceries and stop by to check in. Since her own family lives out of state, she worried about where her three children would go if she herself got sick, but friends immediately offered to step in if needed “without batting an eyelash.”
“My friends and family both locally and from afar have been so supportive,” she says.
Because of dual training in internal medicine and pediatrics, providers like Carstensen help minimize the number of staff taking on higher risk exposure while providing high quality care to patients of all ages. At the Canton Health Center, she helps perform COVID-19 testing for patients with respiratory symptoms, determine whether people need to go to the Emergency Department and provide appropriate treatments.
“I do what I do because I love my job,” says Carstensen. “I am here because I believe in this work and I want to be able to help and support people particularly during this stressful time.”
For children Cooper, 9; Nora, 7; and Sawyer, 4, having a mom on the frontline means not being able to hug her right away when she walks through the door. Now, they wait for her to change out of her scrubs and take a shower before a proper greeting.
But they also know it’s important to protect them from germs.
Carstensen’s perfect Mother’s Day involves a family walk in the neighborhood or nature area and ending the day with campfire and s’mores or popcorn and a movie night.
“My kids have again demonstrated how resilient they are. And some days it is hard for them to wait for their hugs,” she says. “But, we get all the snuggles and hugs in eventually.”
As an ICU nurse in the regional infectious containment unit (RICU), Tamara Henderson, RN, not only helps manage patients’ COVID-19 care but is also a source of comfort and reassurance for them and their families.
But as a mother of five she’s reassuring people at home too.
“It was very hard to see fear, anxiety and worry in my children's faces when they learned that I was caring specifically for COVID patients,” she says. “No child wants to think that their mom is in danger. There were many prayers prayed and many conversations had in our home that I never imagined we would have to ease their minds and their hearts.”
But husband Greg and children Jalen, 18; Cameron, 15; Paityn, 11, Braylon, 10 and Londyn, 5, also understand why her job is so important.
“This disease process is like nothing I have ever seen before,” she says. “Nursing is one of the most caring professions, and it is very challenging to consistently give your all and not know if your patient is going to pull through or to be unsure if their life will ever be the same. It can be very heartbreaking. “
But rewarding days come too. When patients start breathing, eating and speaking on their own again “there are tears of joy that refresh my soul,” she says.
On the days she works, she stays at a local hotel. When she returns home, she changes out of her scrubs in the garage before greeting anyone and then enjoys family time, which has included many board games, Disney movies and cuddles.
“This experience has granted us with various teaching moments, specifically as it relates to wisdom, faith and worry,” she says. “I would like to believe that from watching me they have learned what it means to utilize your knowledge to be safe, while still having trust in God for protection so that you are not in a state of constant fear.”
When hospitals began responding to the pandemic, it meant switching gears for Ruby Marr, M.D., who served as the director of the Michigan Medicine unit housed at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.
Marr, of Novi, transitioned to caring for critical COVID-19 patients in the Michigan Medicine RICU while also helping manage capacity at the hospital.
“It really gave me a sense of satisfaction that I was doing my part to not only care for our most afflicted patients, but I hoped that my contribution may protect some of our more vulnerable providers from having to be exposed,” she says.
She thanks her colleagues, leaders and team for helping her develop an action plan to keep her family – which includes husband James and daughters Sofia, 7 and Anabella “Bella,” 5 – as safe as possible when transitioning from work back home.
“Without (James) healthy and vibrant, our family doesn’t work,” she says. “I can’t be a physician and a mother at the same moment in time, and he makes it all possible. He is our family stronghold, making sure homework gets done, that our babes are happy and healthy.”
But other families count on her too.
“I find great joy in being able to tell a patient, ‘I spoke to your son, daughter, brother, mother today and they told me this wonderful story about you and you can tell they really love and miss you. Let’s try and get you one step closer to going home today,’ she says.
Her children aren’t too worried about her job, mostly just wanting their mom all to themselves when she is home to snuggle, take walks, watch sunsets, build fires and play outside.
“I think they both know how happy my work makes me, and the feeling of joy and pride I have in my work,” she says, adding of her family. “After a long day, the most rewarding thing I could ask for is seeing those three faces.”
But as coronavirus cases ramped up in Michigan and research showed that children weren’t experiencing the serious complications, her team offered to use their ICU expertise to help care for adults with the disease.
“I think we are all operating a bit outside our comfort zones, either because we are taking care of more patients or taking care of a different type of patient or working from home,” says Smith, of Dexter.
And then there are the adjustments at home with son Gabe, 14 months, whose daycare is closed and who often makes a cameo appearance in Zoom calls with colleagues when meetings don’t match up with his nap time.
“There have been many days that I feel like I'm not doing the best job at work or at home because my attention is pulled in multiple directions,” she says. “I seek the advice of other health care workers and family to reassure me that I'm doing the best I can.”
Both she and husband Todd work in health care, so Smith has worked weekends and nights to trade off watching Gabe while also relying on in-home child care.
When she’s with her son, she tries to carve out tech-free time with him – even if briefly – to play or go for a walk.
“I love coming home every day and knowing that no matter what tough decisions I had to make, my son lights up when I walk in the door,” she says. “I have such a supportive husband who takes care of things around the house when I have busy or hard days, so I can come home and try to relax. I really couldn't do this without him.”
During the pandemic, anesthesiologist Lauryn Rochlen, M.D., led a team that helped ensure that people were adequately trained on safely caring for COVID-19 patients and transporting them through the hospital to the operating room.
She also spent time as an intensivist caring for critically ill COVID and neurosurgical patients.
Among top priorities was making sure that the faculty were safe and supported.
“This has been a hectic time in all of our lives and it was important to me to alleviate any uncertainty,” says Rochlen, who is also associate chair for faculty affairs for the department of anesthesiology.
“We all went into medicine to take care of patients and try to make a difference in their lives. That part has not changed. What is hard about taking care of COVID patients is the unknown risk you are putting yourself and your family in.”
Meanwhile husband David is working from home with their children Isaac, 10 and Hannah, 7.
When they’re able to enjoy free time together, they try to be outside as much as possible and are sometimes caught rocking out to eighties’ songs via the “Just Dance” app.
“Finding that mythical balance between career and family has taken on a completely new dimension,” she says. “It has been so rewarding to see how each (child) is thriving in their own way during this situation. There have been many ups and downs, but I am so proud of them for how they have adjusted.
“We have been working very hard on the concept of gratitude in our house,” she adds. “They are learning to be grateful for all the good things that we do have in our lives, even now. I hope that they have learned that it is important in times like these to put others’ needs before your own.”
One of the biggest questions hospitalist Sweta Singh, MBBS, had to answer from her son Agam, 7, and daughter Isha, 4, was why she couldn’t work from home like some of their friends’ parents.
But they “now understand we need to be thankful that we are safe and are able to help people who are sick,” says Singh, who cares for COVID-19 patients on general medicine floors.
“I have been given an opportunity to be on the frontline of this pandemic to help those most in need and be a part of the resolution to this outbreak.”
Singh says while the hospital was well prepared for managing the pandemic, she felt less prepared for the big changes at home. Navigating new parenting responsibilities with children doing remote school while balancing longer and more uncertain hours at work was a challenging transition.
But she says her husband Gundeep and her parents-in-law are her support system, “allowing me to do my job to the best of my ability.”
On her days off, the family enjoys playing board and card games and table tennis along with bike riding and playing cricket. They are most looking forward to being able to travel again.
On Mother’s Day she plans to video chat with own mother in India and “pour love onto my children.”
“Coming back home to my family and kids safe and healthy is a reward on its own,” she says. “My family is where I get all of my strength.”