Motherhood on the front lines during COVID-19

Dr. Erin O’Connor’s children have two distinct personalities. Her four-and-a-half-year-old son is the quiet, contemplative type who loves to build things like his engineer father, and her two-year-old daughter is extroverted, strong-willed and very sweet. Yet, they often react in the same way – with tears – when she comes home from a shift in the Emergency Department (ED) and won’t hug them right away. There’s a reason, of course.

As Deputy Medical Director of Emergency Medicine at University Health Network, Dr. O’Connor is on the front lines in the fight against an invisible enemy. She works in the EDs of Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals, as well as on the Palliative Care team at Toronto General. It’s in an emergency physician’s nature to plan ahead, she says, and that’s how she manages to guide her staff, care for her patients and raise her kids in the best way possible during this global pandemic.

When she arrives home from an eight-hour shift, before she walks through her front doors, Dr. O’Connor’s husband wrangles the kids. This buys her time to run to the basement for a shampoo and shower to decontaminate herself – even her eyeglasses and hairband are washed down with soap. She changes into fresh clothes that are already waiting for her before she feels it’s safe enough to interact with her family.

The new normal in Dr. O’Connor’s house means she works more evening shifts so that during the day she can spend more time at home when the kids are awake, and be available to remotely conduct meetings with her colleagues or interviews with journalists. The new normal means continuing to pay the nanny’s salary so that this valued caregiver is able to stay safely at her own home. The new normal for Dr. O’Connor also means having a contingency plan in case she catches COVID-19.

“My husband and I planned around the phrase ‘when I get sick’ – not if,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with my fellow mom docs where people have talked about updating their wills and including guardians for their children. It’s grim, and not what you want to think about at age 39, but these conversations really have to happen.”

Related Content: Emergency Medicine Virtual Q&A – April 23, 2020

Frontline Emergency Medicine staff Dr. Erin O’Connor and Registered Nurse Nicole Harada answer questions about how life has changed for medical professionals in the current health care landscape.

Dr. O’Connor’s contingency plan is dependent on house swapping with her in-laws, who live close by. In the event that she becomes ill, they will leave their home to move in with her husband and help with the kids. In exchange, she moves into their place to recover in isolation. Dr. O’Connor already has an emergency bag packed. She is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, but in the immediate future, her routine will stay the same.

On a typical evening while she’s driving to work, she juggles mental preparation for her upcoming shift with thoughts about her children, who are sad to see her leave soon after she feeds them supper.

Once she arrives at work, she places her cell phone into a Ziploc bag for use. The smartphone’s touchscreen stays responsive through the plastic. She also changes from her street clothes into a clean pair of scrubs. Once she puts on her personal protective equipment (PPE) – bonnet, mask and face shield – she hits the floor to check in with the charge nurse and make rounds to visit her patients. In between rounds, she may also don her educator’s hat and supervise a medical resident.

As someone in a leadership position, one of her most significant challenges is addressing staff’s fears and anxieties in the face of the unknown. “I can’t always give reassurance because I don’t know what’s coming down the pipeline in the long term, but I can offer comfort in that I’m dealing with the same issues,” she says. “I can also offer advice, such as my home exit and entry strategies. As part of the leadership team, I aim to be clear and transparent at all times, so staff know what we know.”

In the hospital specifically, “UHN is doing a great job in making sure that we have the right protective equipment to wear,” she says. “And on the front line, we’re all looking out for each other, and making sure we’re all safe. There is definitely a team-oriented attitude.”

At the end of her shift, she tosses her bonnet and face mask into the garbage. She removes her phone from the Ziploc, tosses the bag, and disinfects the phone as an extra precaution. She ditches her dirty scrubs into the scrub machine, to be picked up later by UHN’s laundry service, and changes into her street clothes. She then grabs a clean pair of scrubs to store in her work bag for the next shift. The bag is kept in her car, and her work shoes are kept in her locker at the hospital; neither the bag nor the shoes ever make it into her house.

Depending on the time of day, her commute to and from work, she says, is a great opportunity to call her sister or mother who live in New Brunswick.

“My mom has been trying to shield me from some of her anxiety. Every time that I’m on shift, she sends me a text saying, ‘be careful, be safe,’” says Dr. O’Connor. “But having been a working mom herself, she set a really good example for me on how to balance home life with work life, how to stay present, both as a mom but with your job, as well.”

Even amid the struggles of the pandemic, Dr. O’Connor’s greatest joy has been the opportunity to spend more time with her family without the usual distractions that often pull them away from the home.

“I actually spend a lot more time with my kids. So even though I’m in between virtual meetings, that’s a half-an-hour where I’m home with them and playing,” she says. “We’re not rushing off to take them to school or to various lessons. This means we do have more time for our central family.”

Working and caring for kids during a pandemic still poses its challenges. To all the parents who are frontline and essential workers during the pandemic, Dr. O’Connor says, “it’s okay not to feel like we’re doing a great job on all fronts right now.”

“We’re all in survival mode. Many of us are working full time on two fronts, both as parents and at our jobs, in addition to teaching our kids who are attending virtual school. This isn’t hard because you’re not good at it. This is hard for all of us,” she says. “Moms, be kind to yourselves.”

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