CHESTThought Leader BlogLife as a Fellow: Becoming a Parent in Medicine During the Pandemic

Life as a Fellow: Becoming a Parent in Medicine During the Pandemic

By: Pooja N. Pandit, MD

In our first year of fellowship, my husband and I started feeling like we were ready to be parents. I became pregnant in the beginning of my second year, but no one could anticipate what would happen next. I worked my last night shift in the ICU on March 7 at 35 weeks pregnant, and on March 13, our nation started shutting down due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I delivered a healthy baby boy on April 2, 2020: The start of the first dreadful wave of COVID-19 in Philadelphia. Postpartum life was nothing like I imagined: My husband and I were alone, scared to expose our families after being in the hospital, and had very little support. Those initial weeks of having a baby in a pandemic, while also being a (nonpracticing) pulmonary and critical care fellow, were probably the hardest of my life. I was not alone: One study of physician mothers in April 2020 found that more than 40% met diagnostic criteria for moderate or severe anxiety.1 Not only was I scared for my baby, but I was worried about my colleagues. Feelings of guilt swelled: I was not on the “front lines” helping to combat this pandemic. Later, going back to work, an already emotional time, was intensified by managing patients with an unfamiliar and unknown disease. Here is how I got by:

Find Your Village!

I still feel mad when I read this statement in parenting forums or blogs—but it really is true! This was the most difficult part of having a baby during a pandemic. The truth is that the pandemic made childcare, which was already inaccessible for many families, even more difficult. My husband is a cardiology fellow, and as two health care workers, we could not work from home. We were lucky that my mother was able to live with us and take care of our son when I started back at work, though this was also a difficult decision, as we could have unknowingly exposed her to COVID-19. Nonetheless, it was a huge help and comfort to have her here, and the time she had with her grandson was irreplaceable.

Ultimately, she had to leave to get back to her work, and right around this time, there was an uptick in cases. The plan had always been to start our son in daycare, a decision we did not take lightly given the ongoing pandemic. However, we struggled to find childcare that was open with vacancies during this time. During the pandemic, many health care workers were forced to choose between staying home with their children or going to take care of patients.1 Luckily, my hospital has a daycare center, which is where we enrolled him, and this turned out to be the thing we were most grateful for throughout this year. We are so lucky to have wonderful childcare providers who my son has grown to love.

Have Realistic Expectations

Even though our daycare was amazing, it wasn’t truly a “village”. There was no backup childcare, no family visiting, and most importantly, no real breaks. We had zero “alone” time, and as two fellows in our PGY-6 year of training (in the middle of a pandemic!), we felt burnt-out and exhausted. We were trying to learn all we could about sleep training and regressions and how to keep this little human alive. In addition, I was navigating pumping breast milk at work and advocating for myself to do so. On top of all of that, we were studying for our pulmonary boards (me) and echocardiography boards (him). We tried to have realistic expectations for ourselves, and there were multiple instances when I was asked to take on another project or obligation and had to say no. As one of the chief fellows in my program, this wasn’t always possible. I had an added responsibility, but I quickly learned what could stay and what could go.

Understand Your Priorities

When our son got sick, one of us had to stay home with him. We dealt with URIs, COVID exposures at school, and five SARS-CoV-2 tests in a screaming baby this winter! Although it feels like no one in medicine stays home with their sick kids (let alone when they themselves are sick!), we quickly learned where our priorities lie. Patient care is important, but so is your family and well-being. There is almost always someone who can do the exact same job as you at work, but that certainly is not the case at home. We are grateful that we have co-fellows and attendings who understood that and stepped up for us.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

I can’t stress how much having a supportive partner throughout all of this helped. Luckily, as two physicians, we held the same viewpoints on the pandemic and what would and wouldn’t be allowed for our son. This meant that most of our family did not get to hold or even see our son until he was more than a year old! Because we made the decision together, we had more confidence in telling friends and family what we were comfortable with. There were so many moments during the pandemic when I thought to myself, “Am I being the crazy one?” But my husband was always there to remind me to stay true to myself, and I realized that I was doing everything in my power to protect our son from harm.

Now, more than a year after the pandemic was declared, I know that my most important job is as a mother to my son. There is more to life than work, and becoming a parent has helped me see that. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “It’s never too late...to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing…I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.” Your life will change in enormous ways throughout your medical training. Your priorities will change, and that’s OK. Nothing is set in stone, and sometimes we need to adapt to unexpected challenges. I never expected to become a mother during a global pandemic, but it has made me a better doctor, wife, daughter, and friend. My son brought me the most indescribable joy in the hardest year for so many people, and I’m so grateful he’s mine.

References

  1. Robinson LJ, Engelson BJ, Hayes SN. Who is caring for health care workers’ families amid COVID-19? Acad Med. Preprint. Posted online February 23, 2021. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000004022


Pooja N. Pandit, MD

Pooja N. Pandit, MD

Dr. Pandit is chief fellow in pulmonary and critical care at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She completed her internal medicine residency at Rhode Island Hospital/Brown University. Her clinical interests lie in ARDS, women's health, and resource utilization as well as medical education and teaching. She is currently working on a prospective cohort study on biomarkers in ARDS as well as a quality improvement project on length of ICU stays. She is a fellow-in-training member of the CHEST Women's Lung Health Network Steering Committee and a member of the CHEST Trainee Work Group. Upon completion of her fellowship she will be going into clinical practice at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia.