Local health care workers are describing the grueling, emotional shifts they face each day while working the front lines of COVID-19.
She risks her life, night after night, while her four children sleep.
Barbara Goel, a nurse anesthetist who works extended shifts (7 p.m. to 7 a.m. or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) at Beaumont Hospital in Farmington Hills, is covered from head to toe in protective gear and surrounded by COVID-19 all night long.
When she leaves for work, Mayah, 15, Noam, 12, Ethan, 10, and Levi, 3, often remind her to wear her N95 mask. She assures them she will. Her husband, Shai, also a nurse anesthetist, works an opposite shift at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital. They alternate schedules, taking turns caring for sick patients or staying home with the children. As of April 26, there have been 37,778 reported cases of the coronavirus in Michigan and 3,315 deaths.
“Initially I was losing sleep worrying about getting sick,” she says. “I’ve adapted to look at it differently now. I wear a mask at all times, and I do everything possible to protect myself.
“I don’t feel I have an option not to go to work,” she adds. “I am a trained health professional doing my job when it’s needed most.”
Goel is part of a two-person intubation team. She also assists in the COVID ICU where some of the most critically ill patients are fighting for their lives. Many make calls to loved ones — before being sedated and placed on a ventilator — just before she enters the room. With no visitors allowed at the hospital, each patient is there alone.
“We are pretty scary-looking with all of our masks, gowns and shields, so it’s even more important to stay positive with them,” she says. “We reassure them we will do everything we can to help them and keep them comfortable.”
After each grueling, emotional shift, Goel goes through the painstaking process of safely removing her gear so she doesn’t get infected. Her mask stays at work and is cleaned at the hospital. At home, she goes back to being a mom, helping her children, three of whom attend Hillel Day School, with online school and daily classes.
“My kids have been great through this,” she says. “They know just enough about the virus that they don’t complain about being home. They send us reminders to keep protected, but don’t seem stressed.”
‘An Honor to Serve’
Dr. David Willens, head of academic internal medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, leaves his wife, Lauren, newborn daughter, Stella, and stepson, Carter Rennert, 7, at home, when he heads to work each day. He believes they all had COVID-19 and recovered, although only one family member tested positive for the virus. They self-quarantined for three weeks.
“We had sore throats, fatigue and fevers, but no cough,” he says. “We all had the same symptoms. Some people have a mild case.”
At the hospital, Willens sees the more severe coronavirus cases. While he believes he may now be immune to the virus, he still suits up, wearing a clear face shield, mask, gown and gloves to be safe. He works with a team of residents seeing patients on a general medicine ward; some have pneumonia, some have suffered heart failure.
“It’s stressful. Most diseases we deal with don’t have the high risk of mortality this has,” he says. “The fear will be one of the most lasting effects COVID-19 will have on our world. It’s affected every single aspect of our lives.”
Still, he says, “This is why I became a doctor, to serve. And it’s an honor to serve at a time of crisis like this.”
Dr. Robert Cohen is an ER physician with Independent Emergency Physicians, a physician-owned practice that staffs four local hospitals and runs two urgent care centers. He works at Providence in Southfield and Novi and St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac.
Cohen worries about inadvertently bringing the virus home and sleeps in a guest room as a precaution to protect his wife, Elyse, and children Ava, 13, and Ryan, 10. The family got a puppy as a “happy distraction.”
“When I leave the hospital, I change clothes, so I come home in fresh clothes, but I take them off immediately and shower immediately,” he says. “My clothes get washed right away. I keep my shoes in the garage.”
He says the most challenging thing about COVID-19 is that there is no treatment. But, Cohen says, he and the rest of the medical staff are doing everything they’re trained to do. While he’s on the front lines where personal protective equipment (PPE) is in short supply, his wife collects thousands of donated masks, gowns, medical gloves, hand sanitizer and more. They are grateful for the outpouring of support.
“I feel like there are a lot of things I can’t control, and collecting gear is one thing I can do to help,” Elyse Cohen says. “This was one of my biggest fears for his profession — a pandemic or bioterrorism. I tell my kids every day their dad is a hero.”