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‘I usually cry in my car’: 3 Philly doctors talk about months of battling coronavirus

As the pandemic wears on, even physicians who might once have strived to appear stoic are finding that talking about their experiences is essential. Three Philadelphia doctors opened up about how they cope.

Left to right: Monica Busuioc, a doctor on the COVID floor at Temple University Hospital; Megan Stobart-Gallagher, an emergency department doctor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital; and William Pace, an infectious disease doctor.
Left to right: Monica Busuioc, a doctor on the COVID floor at Temple University Hospital; Megan Stobart-Gallagher, an emergency department doctor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital; and William Pace, an infectious disease doctor.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

One doctor who treats coronavirus patients said she’s developed an irrational fear of eating during her hospital shift. An emergency department physician described feeling isolated, despite being surrounded by people. An infectious disease specialist talked about going to bed each night exhausted, only to toss and turn for hours.

As the pandemic wears on, even physicians who might once have strived to appear stoic are finding that talking about their experiences is essential. Three Philadelphia doctors opened up about feeling anxious, sad, inadequate — and how they cope. Here’s some of what they shared:

William Pace

An infectious disease doctor who practices at several area hospitals, Pace lives with his wife, Jana, and three children in Fishtown.

The patient he can’t forget: “She was in her 50s. She was pretty sick. Her oxygen levels were very low and she needed to be intubated, but she was wide awake — talking, and she wanted to call her grown sons. She wanted to call them before she went on a breathing machine, basically, in case she didn’t get off. She pulled out her cell phone and her battery was dead. She didn’t have a charger and she didn’t know their phone numbers because they were stored in her phone, and just the look on her face when she realized that she could die without ever talking to her sons again. It was tough to watch. That was hard.”

» READ MORE: Help for the helpers: Health-care workers feel more stress and anxiety than ever as coronavirus restrictions lift

On crying in his car: “You try to pick your moments and not do it when too many people are watching you. I usually cry in my car either going to work or coming home. I try not to do it, you know, at home or at work when I’m in front of a bunch of nurses who I’m supposedly trying to hold together. So everybody kind of picks their spots. It’s very emotional. It’s very anxiety-provoking. Nothing makes sense. It’s all unknown.”

On protecting his kids: “I don’t touch them. I don’t really eat with them. I don’t do bedtime with them. I don’t bathe them. Graham [his son] fell in the yard and I scooped him up and I was hugging him to calm him down. When I realized what I was doing, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ … Humans really do respond to physical touch, especially in emotional times, and none of us can do that now.”

What his wife tried to hide: “I have my own chair in the living room. Nobody else can touch it, and it’s leather, so Jana can wipe it down with disinfectant wipes when I get up, which she tried to hide from me. I didn’t realize she was doing that initially.”

What he does when he should be sleeping: “I toss and turn until midnight, or later. It’s hard to sleep. I spend a lot of time staring at my phone, looking up articles, trying to do some research, looking back in the computer at different patients, at lab results to see how they are doing. I’ll have a specific question on my mind and I’ll grab my phone and I’ll start looking it up and I’ll just go down a rabbit hole, and the next thing I know, it’s 5:30 a.m. It’s tough not having answers.”

The worst part of the job: “The hardest thing is watching people die. Or even, not even die, watching people end up on a breathing machine without their family being there with them. It’s just really ... it just makes you question the entire ... I don’t know.”

Driveway therapy: “I get a lot of calls from colleagues and texts from them after hours, when they’re sitting in their driveway before they go in the house, afraid to touch their kids and stuff like that. I kind of talk them through it and let them tell me what their fears are. … You can’t work if you’re scared, especially in health care, so I try to keep people calm but informed. It’s a tough line to walk, and I’ve never really had to do it necessarily to this extent.”

Megan Stobart-Gallagher

An emergency-medicine physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Stobart-Gallagher lives with her husband, an architect, and their two daughters, 7 and 4, in Mount Airy.

She’s no hero: “I told my husband this earlier, ‘I’m tired of being called a hero.’ I don’t feel like I’m doing anything outside of what I normally do, and I actually, you know, I kind of feel like I’m a failure right now because I can’t be the kind of doctor I want to be.”

On wearing all that protective gear: “It’s very isolating for the physicians and nurses and staff. We pride ourselves on being able to be there in someone’s time of need, to be a listening ear or the human touch of a hand on their shoulder, and we can’t really do that anymore. … When you’re wearing a gown and a mask and a hood that’s kind of blowing air and you can barely hear, I feel like I’m shouting at the patients, asking them personal questions. It just makes me feel like I’m dehumanizing their experience.”

» READ MORE: When isolation is worse than death: a Philly oncologist on cancer patients and COVID-19

Breaking the ice: “One of the things I like to do is kind of joke with patients about, you know, ‘Sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances. What would be a more fun place that we could hang out and have this conversation?’ A patient recently joked about going to a bachelorette party with me and I just laughed so hard because it was the most unexpected thing that I could have heard from someone in that situation. When I asked her about it, she said she just had never had the opportunity to have one when she was younger.”

Her pandemic playlist: “My go-to song after a difficult shift is by Norah Jones. The song is called ‘Humble Me.’ ... The lyrics talk about how God humbles you, but you don’t have to be religious to remember, at your roots, who you are and what is important. You can come off the height of saving a trauma patient to misdiagnosing the next patient. The lyrics in the song just bring me back to who I need to be every day to make a difference.”

On making her little girl cry: “I came home at dinnertime and they were so happy to see me and my 4-year-old broke the rule of, ‘No touching mommy before she showers,’ and it just broke my heart to be like, ‘Oh no, no, no, please don’t — don’t hug me,’ and she started crying. It was really heartbreaking.”

Mother’s Day 2020: “Mother’s Day hit me really hard this year. My mom is 74 and she has bad lungs. I took my two girls over to her house and we stood in the yard and waved to her and she had lunch inside and we had lunch outside. That was what we had to do because I’m her biggest risk to becoming ill. I had this realization — this is how it’s going to be for a really long time. I’m not going to be able to hug my mom.”

Monica Busuioc

A specialist in the care of hospitalized patients, Busuioc works at Temple University Hospital. She lives with her husband, a microbiologist and medical writer, and their 8-year-old daughter, Sofia, in Fort Washington.

The toughest part: “The insecurity. The fact that we are dealing with something that we don’t know how to treat. It’s this feeling of although you are doing everything you can, it’s not really enough. That makes me very unhappy.”

The survivor who is changed forever: “An elderly gentleman was found in his house, hugging the body of his wife who had passed away. They both had coronavirus. She was gone. He was hugging his wife’s corpse. His daughter found him. He was admitted to Temple. He was in shock. He was teaching classes at Temple University, and then, when I was talking to him, he could barely say a few things. … I think he felt like he lost his place in the world, and now it’s just — him. He’s gotten over the disease. He’s not sick in terms of his lungs. His life changed.”

Helping a family say goodbye over a video call: “I was holding the phone [up to his face so his family could see him]. I was looking around and I saw his glasses on the edge of the window and I just felt so sad. He wasn’t awake, but he was shaking a lot. Not like a seizure, more like muscle twitching, and then, as his family started to pray, those twitchings became worse and he was sweating a lot. That’s when I started rubbing his shoulder and squeezing his hand, and I felt like that helped a little bit. He calmed down a bit. We were [FaceTiming] for 30 or 40 minutes. At the end of the call, I told the family, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do it again tomorrow. I’ll call you. You’ll see him again tomorrow,’ But by the next day, he had passed. I had to call the family. It was hard because — you know when something happens and you don’t really process things? His family was like, ‘So he died? How? Why?’ ... It was very hard for them to conceptualize, to accept this, because it all happened away from them.”

The TV thriller that helps her unwind: “I saw [Homeland] once and now I started watching it again. I can fast-forward through things I remember and rewatch the parts I like. You watch things that you already know so you don’t have to worry about focusing too much. I don’t watch anything new. I don’t want surprises. I have enough surprises at work.”

Her freak-out mom moment: “I just gave Sofia a bath and I noticed the skin on her hands was peeling, and then I remembered, ‘Oh, my God, a few days ago, one of her eyes appeared pink. What if she actually has Kawasaki [a rare disease with symptoms similar to those in some children with COVID-19]?’ So I texted my pediatrician really quick. I sent her a picture of her hands, and she said, ‘Let’s just watch it.’ She had no other signs. No joint swelling. No fever. She was very happy running around. Her pediatrician saw her the next day and she was like, 'No, this is not Kawasaki.’ I sort of went into panic mode.”

Her mental block: “I cannot eat in the hospital anymore. I cannot. I can drink water, coffee, or tea, but I cannot make myself eat. It’s like a mental block. We have food delivered to the hospital every day, which is amazing. But I can’t eat it. I don’t even have a logical explanation for it. ... I feel like, this is the place where we do not eat and we always wear a mask and we try to stay clean and protect ourselves.”

What gets her through: “It helps to focus on the good things. A lot of infected people have recovered. ... I’ve seen a 92-year-old lady that did amazing. She went home. I was so happy for her. She was very sharp, very witty, and by the end of it, she was like, ‘Can I get out of here? This is horrible. I have no window. The bed is uncomfortable. This is no good for me.’ And she was right.”