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Taking care of my sister’s children while she treats coronavirus patients | COMMENTARY

Nurses and other health care workers have had to live apart from their families to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Nurses and other health care workers have had to live apart from their families to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

The car was silent as I drove home with my niece and nephew in the back seat. Usually, when they come to my house, my niece is nonstop talk and my nephew, who is autistic, is repeating my son’s name over and over again. Signs of how excited they are, how much they love coming to spend time with us.

This day there was nothing. They each just stared out the window. I asked my niece how she was. She just shrugged. I asked my nephew the same question. “Nothing,” was his reply. His way of saying that he just wanted to be left alone. Usually when they come to my house it is for the weekend, to give the sitter a break and let my sister, an intensive care nurse, catch up on much needed sleep. Sometimes, while on vacation from school, they come for several days. Always there is a known time when their mother will be picking them up or joining us for a few days before they head home. Not this day; it is the unknown that weighs so heavily.

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I had been gently prodding my sister as to when the children would come to us. She always reassured me it wasn’t time. She was still in her regular unit at the hospital and she was taking every precaution. She came home from work, stripped down, took a shower and made sure she was sanitized before hugging the kids. The sitter was still willing to come watch the kids, although each day there were more and more comments about not being able to continue to do so. The sitter, elderly but in good health, was in a high risk group. She, like all other workers, was doing a daily assessment between the need for a paycheck and the need to safeguard her health.

This day when I called my sister, I knew immediately the time had come for me to have the talk with her. As she answered the phone, her hello felt strained. I knew she was holding back tears. “I didn’t sign up for this,” she told me. “I didn’t sign up to send my children away not knowing when I will be able to see them again.” She was being transferred to the COVID-19 ICU unit. She was being sent to the front lines.

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We talked about the logistics. When and how her daughter needed to get online for classes. What could be done for her son in terms of speech therapy and keeping him occupied. We discussed the importance of keeping their schedule, especially for her son who doesn’t always do well with change. We went over the medication schedule for her son, setting up online playdates for her daughter, the day-to-day routines we both knew so well. It was a way to put off, if even for just a few minutes, the truly difficult conversation.

Then, talk of wills, guardianship papers, advance directives. She reminded me that, if things got bad at her hospital, I wouldn’t need to make any decisions. The doctors and nurses would make that call based on her condition and the conditions at the hospital. I reminded her that I had friends who would make masks. That I was trying to locate a 3-D printer to make face shields. I made her promise that if personal protective equipment started running low, she would contact me immediately so that I could use my resources to get them to her before the hospital ran out.

We met at the usual halfway point between our homes. The children got in my car. She thanked me and commented on how lucky she was to have a place to send them where she knew they would be loved, they would be safe. I promised to video chat, send her daily updates. As I pulled out of the parking lot I looked back. She was hunched over the steering wheel, crying. All I could do was pray that this would not be the last time I saw her.

Laura Morton (lgmattymd@hotmail.com) is an attorney and candidate for Judge of the Circuit Court for Carroll County.

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