My Biggest Tip To Medical Families To Get Through COVID

“How are you holding up?” people ask me.

We’re about two months into corona. And I still don’t know how to answer it. But we’ve had time to adjust to it. However, I still have some sort of phantom feeling that there’s somewhere I need to be. But when I open up my Google calendar, there’s nothing. Everything is canceled, rescheduled, or indefinitely up in the air.

Yet…I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been in my life…

I have three small kids are at home while I am working a full-time day job to support my husband who is a GI fellow.

In the afternoon, our two older kids have Zoom meetings and online school work to submit. Between the work calls and Child #1 asking me, “What sound does “-ain” make?” I quickly come up with words that rhyme like plain, stain, complain. Back at my laptop, I wonder which tab was last open.

AFter returning to my laptop, Child #2 knocks at my door every few minutes and asks, “Can I have a snack?”

“You just had lunch, honey,” I tell him.

I get some cheese sticks and top off his cup with milk. But right before I go back to my laptop, I notice that Child #3 has taken her diaper off because she is starting to figure out there’s a wet feeling in her diaper. And she doesn’t like it.

Meanwhile, my husband is at the hospital. Routine procedures like colon cancer screenings are rescheduled but he has to go in for emergency cases. Most people don’t want to go in unless it’s really bad. And by the weight he carries as he peels his scrubs off at the end of the day, I don’t have to ask; I know he’s seen some bad cases.

When the kids hear him pull up the driveway, Child #1 screams, “Daddy is here!!” and all of them crowd the front window and follow him with their eyes as he walks inside.

By now, we’re in a routine where they know not to hug him until he’s changed out of his driving clothes in the garage (after already having changed out of his work clothes at the hospital), wiped down his phone and pager, and showered, just in case he would unknowingly bring the virus home. After freshly showering, he can finally touch the kids.

But Child #3 still runs to him sometimes and then bursts into tears wondering why I quickly grabbed her right before she got to touch him.

Once inside the front door, my husband starts another job, which is to be a husband and father. And to him, that’s first and foremost. (He jokes that it’s the real essential one.) If he’s not doing well with it, he doesn’t feel he’s doing well in anything.

We both bond over our collective exhaustion.

All of this describes one of America’s “best-case scenarios” with a stable household income and with everybody healthy. I realize the privilege we have throughout all of this. It’s impossible to imagine what worst-case scenario would be like for those going through it.

We’re In It Together

Your day may look a little different from mine. We all have different challenges. Your DrSpouse may be a student or out in practice. You may have several kids or no kids. You may be dealing with chronic illness and disabilities. You may be expecting and giving birth during COVID. What is hardest for me is going to be different for you.

But what unites all of us is that we have a DrSpouse on the frontline. And that is super hard. The world is witnessing our DrSpouses’ service and dedication more than ever in history.

But they don’t see you.

But I see you.

I know that the lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) for your DrSpouse worries you, as if they were asked to go into battle with guns armed with cardboard instead of bulletproof vests. At least 4, young, hardworking residents who have already died so far, you wonder if next time, it’ll be your DrSpouse.

I know some of you hush adult talks about COVID in front of your kids because later, they will ask, “Will I get the virus and die?” and catch you off guard on how to answer.

I know when they are in bed, some of your kids whisper to their dr parent, “I hope you don’t get the virus…” right before they drift off to sleep. They write goodbye letters in case their dr parent dies.

I know your DrSpouse is trying to take board exams, taking up all your energy to try to do well at them, and kids actively sabotage all their efforts. Not to mention, some board exams are being rescheduled, causing so much anxiety and frustration as you prepare for a moving goal post.

#wereinittogether is the hashtag going on during corona. Although separated by a screen and socially distanced, we are not emotionally distanced.

So Now What?

How do we make this time more bearable?

I am an engineer by education and teacher by heart so my mind always tries to optimize the situation. If I didn’t try to come up with a “how to” or “tips” post, I don’t know who I am anymore. But in this case, there really isn’t a good solution.

I started writing a post called, “How To Keep Your Kids Busy.” A quick glance online and we see plenty of virtual zoo visits, virtual games, virtual books. As I was writing it and reading it over, I told myself, “What am I doing?!” It had been covered so much and better than I could already. So I deleted it and started over.

I thought really hard about what you need to hear the most and came up with this advice instead:

Create a basic routine for your family

Don’t make it complicated and only cover the very basics:

  • Wake up
  • Eat
  • Self-care
  • Sleep

For your family, as an example, a basic routine could look something like this:

  • 7:00 AM Wake up
  • 6:00 PM Eat Dinner
  • 8:00 PM Listen to a Podcast/Walk/Self-care
  • 10:00 PM Lights out

It should be super simple that it can be followed every day.

Let me share why I feel this way:

My family is from Vietnam and for the last century, we have experienced several consecutive wars without any break: French colonization, World War II with the Japanese, Vietnam War, and Cambodian War. Continuing the fight for freedom, my family and I became refugees in a new country, the USA. It wasn’t until 1998 when we had the first chance to see peace in our home country.

In fact, my children are the first in our family to be born in a generation that hasn’t seen war!

In the 1980s, we escaped by sea on an unseaworthy wooden boat, as did about hundreds of thousands of others. After seven days on the ocean waves accepting our fate, whether life or death, we landed in Thailand. We lived in a refugee camp for three years waiting for a sponsor to help us get to the USA. As quite a story all of this is, I was too little to remember any of it.

Our refugee camp I lived in but don’t remember because I was too little

Because I don’t have any recollection of my earliest past, I ask my family a lot of questions.

“How did to feel knowing it was the last day you would see your home country?”

“What is the ocean really like out there?”

“What was it like in the camp?”

But they don’t really talk about that.

Instead, they repeat over and over about being grateful for each new day they get to live. Ordinary events anchored our family’s days with a sense of normalcy, which include these:

  • Wake up at the same time when the rooster crowed
  • Gather around the table for meals
  • Meaningful work
  • Pray, read books, and bathe
  • Sleep when the sun went down

Because of this, I understand the role of routine during stress. Whether it’s soldiers marching in the street outside your window, or 24/7 news, whatever is going on out there should not eliminate these very basics you do at home.

By the way, I’m not comparing the magnitude of lost innocent lives from wars the same way. Wars back then are fought differently than in the 21st century. The enemy may not be a nation, but a virus. Battles may not be fought with machine guns and tanks, but public policy. Bioterrorism can be just as real. And when anything turns the whole world upside down and leaves it permanently different than it was before, the same principles of survival apply.

COVID, as you know, is unique from any war in the past in that it has two fronts: the virus itself and home.

As a medical family, you and your DrSpouse are on both of these fronts. The visible part is done at the hospital and covered all over the news. But what we do within these four walls, unseen from public view, is equally important. Tedious and mundane as trying to plan for the week’s meals appears, it is part of the battle.

For my family, if all I do is my day job, and the kids do something other than screen time, and everybody is safe, it’s a successful day.

And then I wake up, thank God for giving me a new day, and start again with my basic routine.

To your strong medical family,