How ICU Doctors Balance Patients, Parenting

Apr 7, 2020

Health care workers face tough decisions to protect their loved ones from potential exposure to the new coronavirus. Two doctors in New Haven, Connecticut, shared their plans to self-isolate and keep their daughters safe at home.

Ella, 12, and Sofia, 9, settled into their recent nightly routine and cozied into arm chairs for a video chat.

“Hi, mom!” the girls said, “How was your day? 

Their dog jumped in excitement at the sound of their mom’s voice. Dr. Christine Won waved from the screen on the iPad, propped up on a coffee table.  

“It was good,” Dr. Won paused, “Busy. How was yours?”

“Good! We saw the picture of you wearing your mask,” Ella said.

“I know! I have to wear that all day. Isn’t that crazy?” Dr. Won asked.

The girls nod “Yeah…” before they jumped in to share how their virtual gym class and reading group went.

Their dad, Dr. Hyung Chun, recorded the conversation. He teaches at Yale School of Medicine and plans to hold down the fort at home for up to three weeks. WSHU caught up with the couple on a video call. 

“I’m calling from our house in New Haven,” Dr. Chun said as he sat surrounded by bookshelves. 

“I’m calling currently from my Airbnb loft,” Dr. Won said as she settled in to her rental. 

Dr. Won got tapped for a week-long shift running an intensive care unit for COVID-19 at Yale New Haven Hospital. She usually runs an outpatient sleep clinic.

“I was told Friday that I was gonna start working on Monday,” Won said, “So, it was a pretty quick decision that we had to make.”

She and her husband, Dr. Chun, had to decide if she could continue to live at home while working on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

“Initially I thought ‘well, maybe I could just come home and practice really good hygiene and everything would be okay,” Dr. Won said, “But even day by day, as we were listening to the news, getting updates from people at work, we realized that’s probably not going to be the scenario.”

She learned that the hospital ICU filled up as COVID patients stayed on ventilators for three weeks or more. Even young patients fell seriously ill. She didn’t want to risk it. So Dr. Won and Dr. Chun sat their girls down.

“It was really hard, I think, on them because I initially told them ‘don’t worry I’ll come home at night,’” Dr. Won had a plan to socially distance and avoid going in to the girls’ rooms, “Then it quickly evolved into ‘oh mommy’s packing her bags and I’m leaving! You won’t see me for two weeks, but you can call me or FaceTime me!’” 

Sofia, the youngest, had the hardest time. 

“She kept saying, ‘No, no, no, you can’t go away!’ and then it was, ‘okay, no more than 14 days, then,’” Dr. Won said. “I think it was a lot of negotiating back and forth, but I think in the end they accepted it.” 

Dr. Won said it helped that the girls and Dr. Chun moved her into an apartment just a few miles from home. She tried her best to plan for a smooth transition.

“I even had this fantasy, now that I think about it, of keeping up with their online learning while I was working,” Dr. Won remembered, “I gave that up really quickly.”

Dr. Won and Dr. Chun said they had planned to hold video calls every night during family dinner, but Dr. Won came home late and exhausted. They settled on a bedtime call instead. 

Dr. Chun could not be more proud: “She’s always been the hero of the family,” he said. “It’s been an interesting week and probably another few weeks to come.”

Dr. Chun is a cardiologist. He will switch roles with his wife after Dr. Won quarantines herself for up to two weeks, depending on how she feels. Then, Dr. Chun goes into the ICU. 

“He’ll be in the hospital for a week, and he’ll be taking care of patients. We haven’t talked about it quite yet, but I’m probably going to force him to self-isolate,” Dr. Won said. “So for our girls, it’s going to be a flip flop of, unfortunately, single parenting for at least I think this month.”

Dr. Chun says as difficult as it has been adjusting to the new normal in Connecticut, he also empathizes with his colleagues in New York.

“Their patients with [COVID-19] are much higher than what we’re facing at this moment,” Dr. Chun said, “Hopefully things will get better, but I think we all gotta be ready for the challenge.”

Dr. Won appreciates the nurses and hospital support staff who also rise to the challenge, although they may not have the ability to rotate week-long shifts in the ICU or rent a place to self-isolate from their families. 

“We are always talking about the risks we are taking every day,” Dr. Won said. Everyone working at the hospital takes their temperature twice daily and monitors for symptoms. But they also have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community.

“We had about...100 boxes of Girl Scout cookies delivered to us the other day, which was so lovely in gesture,” Dr. Won said, “so uplifting, and really keeps you going when things are tough.”

Dr. Won and Dr. Chun appreciate the donated goodies, other meals, and protective gear. They say one thing everyone can do to help them – and their daughters right now – is to stay safe at home. 

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