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

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

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.

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.

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.

"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.