The Current

Health-care workers worry about bringing COVID-19 home to their kids

For two doctors, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic means balancing their duty to care for patients with the duty to protect their children.

Doctor testing patients for virus has sent daughters to stay with grandparents

Dr. Sabrina Akthar, left, is a family physician who works at a COVID-19 assessment centre in Toronto. Her children are living with their grandparents temporarily because of the pandemic. (Submitted by Dr. Sabrina Akthar)

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Dr. Sabrina Akhtar says it feels like there's an "inevitability" to contracting COVID-19 at the testing centre where she works — so she's sent her three daughters to stay with their grandparents as a precaution.

"We feel enormously lucky just to be able to have my parents look after them and give us a bit of space to work," said Dr. Akhtar, a family physician who works at a COVID-19 assessment centre in Toronto.

"At the same time, when we do come home at night, there's a profound emptiness and sadness," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"You try to just put it aside and watch some TV. But it's been tough. It's not sustainable." 

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over 3,800 confirmed cases in Canada and close to half a million globally. While symptoms are often mild, they can result in serious breathing problems and death. 

Waves of panic sort of come over you when you think, am I going to be a very sick person?- Dr. Sabrina Akhtar

The fear of contracting the virus and passing it on is one Dr. Akhtar shares with her husband, Dr. Asim Alam, the chief of anesthesia at North York General Hospital. 

"Waves of panic sort of come over you when you think, am I going to be a very sick person?" she said.

"Usually, that's tempered by the fact that this is largely a mild illness and I'm going to get it eventually, and all I can do is continue to buy time." 

Dr. Akhtar said she hopes to bring her children, Norah, 2, Mariam, 4, and Zara, 6, home in a week or two. 

"We tell our kids: 'You can help by being brave for mommy and daddy and staying home and having fun with grandma and grandpa," she said.

"'That's your job, and our job is to get the hospitals ready and look after the patients.'"

Fear a problem for doctors too

Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease doctor at Regina General Hospital, is also concerned about catching the COVID-19 virus and passing it along to his children and pregnant wife. 

He worries that fear could affect his work.

"Fear, especially if the patients see the fear, it has a profound effect," Dr. Wong said.  

Dr. Alex Wong is an infectious disease doctor at Regina General Hospital. (Submitted by Dr. Alex Wong)

"For patients, as well as for other staff members and people in the hospital, I think they look to us … to really show confidence and calm in a time like this." 

Despite that desire to project calm and rationally assess risks, both doctors told The Current that fear can get the better of them.

Dr. Wong said he changes his clothes and sanitizes his gear before interacting with his one- and three-year-old after work. Even so, he woke up a few nights ago to the realization he'd never disinfected his car. 

"I spent 15 minutes in the middle of the night just doing that so that I could make myself feel better," he said.

"In the worst-case scenario, if I were to bring it home and then my wife gets sick, what might happen to our unborn child, what might happen to her?" he said. 

"The data would suggest right now, that's probably not high-risk. But again, you have these moments of anxiety and you just think of the worst-case scenario and you want to try to avoid that."

Written by Justin Chandler. Produced by Mehek Mazhar and Joana Draghici.

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