The Cardiologist and Mom of 3 Working 24-Hr. Coronavirus Shifts: 'Sometimes I Think, Am I Doing the Right Thing?'
PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during a global pandemic
Dr. Sarah Rosanel is a cardiovascular fellow who put her cardiology studies on pause to serve as an attending physician as her New York hospital battles the coronavirus. The 34-year-old mother of three, who is originally from France, considered staying at home with her family after being exposed to the virus in her cardiology unit in early March. But as a passionate medical professional, Rosanel felt it was necessary to help her fellow doctors on the front lines. Now, working hospital shifts where needed, Rosanel opens up about her harrowing experience in the COVID-19 unit, the personal and emotional impact and the importance of doing her duty amid the pandemic.
I grew up in Paris but came to New York for school when I was 17.
I completed my internal medicine residency at Maimonides Medical Center and I recently started my cardiology fellowship there, which is what I was doing before the pandemic.
Cases of COVID rapidly grew in my hospital. On March 13, there were two cases. The following week, it grew to 100, then 200, and continued to go up from there.
I am a mom of three kids — 11, 8, and 5 years old — and work frequent 24-hour shifts and regular 9-hour shifts as well. Because of my long hours, it’s lucky that my husband is an accountant and his company accommodated him to work from home right away. He’s at home with the kids, helping them with their Zoom schooling. It’s been working out but it’s not easy.
I worked yesterday from 8:00 a.m. until about 9:00 a.m. this morning. Food and water breaks are very difficult because of all the extensive PPE gear. Touching it improperly would contaminate me, so when I work a 24-hour shift, I try to go to my “on call” room for doctors and there I remove my masks carefully and eat and drink quickly.
In order to not contaminate my family when I get home from the hospital, all of my PPE gear stays at work. As soon as I get home, I remove my shoes and leave them on my porch. The kids usually run towards the door but I warn them to stay away from me and not hug me or kiss me. Then I run barefoot to the shower. After that, I can greet everyone.
It’s pretty challenging for women everywhere when you’re working and your family’s at home because we always have this mommy guilt that we’re not spending time with our kids. But then when you’re also working in a hospital that has the potential to make you sick and contagious, it adds even more of a burden.
Sometimes I find myself thinking, “What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing?” Yes, I do want to be a doctor; that’s my vocation and I love what I want to do. I want to help people. But at the same time, I love my family more than anything in the world and I wouldn’t be okay with hurting them, ever.
Early on, I was put into isolation after being exposed to COVID-19, working on cardiology patients who were showing shortness of breath related to congestive heart failure. As soon as they figured out that two patients I had been caring for were COVID-positive, I had to be quarantined, along with my nurses and PA and everyone who got into contact with those two patients – we were not wearing masks at the time, as we usually examined patients without them prior to the pandemic.
I started developing some symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath and it was very scary. Results from my test were still pending by the time I went back to work after seven days of isolating; I was an “assumed positive” because of my symptoms. (After 14 days, the test did come back negative.)
My family, my parents, my husband, everyone did not want me to go back because they didn’t want me to get sick or get anyone in the family sick. But I felt it was my moral duty to continue being a doctor and go to work in this time because this is when we’re needed the most.
Currently, the hospital is extremely busy. Every single unit is becoming an ICU, including my 15-bed cardiology unit. And we implemented visitor limitations. Initially, the rule was absolutely no visitors, which is still applied, but we have seen a lot of patients dying alone and it is a tragic, tragic experience.
So what we currently allow is, for any patient that has been identified as critical and is about to die, then one family member is allowed to be present at the end. This is something I am appreciative of and that I was also advocating for as well.
Unfortunately, coronavirus is one of those diseases that we do not fully understand yet. It’s extremely hard to predict who is going to live and who is not. I’ve had patients that I just had conversations with, and then I’m being called in for Code 3 — meaning the patient’s heart has stopped — and we have to resuscitate them. It’s extremely hard emotionally, physically to see all of those patients coming in that you’re very hopeful for and then they don’t make it out.
There was this 50-year-old man who was intubated and Code 3 was echoed in the hospital. I tried, along with my team, to do chest compressions to bring him back to life. I did it one time and he came back after about five, six minutes. I’m thinking, great. I saved somebody’s life, but two hours later, we got a Code 3 for the same room. I go back. Shocked him and he came back. We continued to review the chart trying to figure out why his heart kept stopping.
About an hour later, he codes again. I am still with the same team, saying, “I am not going to give up. We brought him back twice, we can bring him back again.” These coding events occurred from 10:00 p.m. to about 3:00 a.m. It was very hard and emotional. He did survive the night. However, he did not make it the next day. Very heartbreaking, but we did all that we could do.
The one silver lining about all of this is our hospital is very lucky because we have humongous support from the communities around us. We’ve had lots of donations — including more PPE — which is the good that has come from the coronavirus crises, everybody gathering together to help.
The 7:00 p.m. clapping and cheers is also an impressive example of people coming together. I live in Midwood/Flatbush —it’s more of a kind of suburban neighborhood — so, I don’t hear the clapping or anything like that. However, my brother lives in the city and he sent me a recent video after working the 24-hour shift — I was just sitting for a minute, catching my breath — and I watched the video and burst into tears.
Yes, I was overtired and emotional but it’s just so impressive that a lot of people just stop what they’re doing at 7:00 every day to clap … it just shows solidarity. I was very touched and moved by it, and I think it does keep us going because even though it’s a very hard job, we feel rewarded in the way of our patients [and others] appreciating that we’re helping to save lives.
- As told to Morgan Evans
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