The divorced physician parent in the time of COVID-19

By | June 6, 2020

I’d like to focus on a group that isn’t discussed much: the divorced health care parent.  With physician marriages ending at a rate of 24 percent and over 1 million physicians and 18 million health care workers in the U.S., this topic will undoubtedly resonate with many despite a paucity of literature. Co-parenting is hard enough—adding a pandemic can put even previously stable co-parenting in extremis. Here’s my COVID-19 co-parenting story.

It was mid-March, and I was talking with my ex-wife about our daughters’ visitation schedule.  I mentioned that hours earlier, I helped intubate a potential COVID-19 patient.  As an anesthesiologist in a bustling metropolitan hospital, we were newly tasked by the administration to cover every intubation.

There was a moment of silence.

“You shouldn’t see the girls anymore.”

That was the moment I felt the pandemic truly invade my life.  I don’t mind intubating COVID patients, or the painful face indentations from wearing an N95 all day, or even the extra overnight calls.  After all, this is the profession I chose.  But at that moment, faced with the possibility of not seeing my girls indefinitely? Now it was personal.

I agreed that isolating the girls at the mother’s house would be a temporary solution.  We agreed to discuss the girls’ schedule in the coming week as we learned more about COVID.  One week passed.  Two weeks.  Another.  Six weeks passed.

Nearly two months passed before I would see my children again.  I knew my girls would be safe, but I felt powerless.  Even though I’m a physician committed to helping others, I’m also a father with a strong bond with my children.  I was upset because any solution I proposed was met with strong opposition and lack of collaboration.

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My hospital’s PPE supply was excellent, and I was careful at work.  I kept a mask on all day.  I avoided groups.  I wore a glove to open doors.  During intubations, I used a PAPR.  In addition, we started getting more COVID tests, so we knew every patient’s status.  I felt safe.

I tried bargaining with my ex-wife.  I proposed seeing the girls every other weekend, meeting them outside 6 feet away, and testing myself.  She only agreed to  FaceTime.  The word “selfish” was used to describe my efforts to see the girls.  That made me feel guilty for wanting to see them.  I felt my role as a father marginalized, and my say as a co-parent nonexistent.  I missed my daughter’s first bike ride.  I missed my youngest daughter’s fourth birthday.  It was gutting to miss out on their lives, from the mundane to the milestones.

To make matters worse, I didn’t have much objective data in which to bargain.  My department had no hospital-acquired COVID infections, and my hospital had an incidence of 1.9 percent.  However, national data varied wildly.  Medscape reported 22 anesthesia provider deaths globally, none in the U.S.  The CDC reported 60,000 health care infections and 300 deaths.  How do I interpret all this data?

I felt isolated—was I the only doctor involuntarily separated from my children?  I was determined to find others like me.  I scoured Facebook groups, messaging anybody that mentioned sending their family away.  I discovered almost everyone actually saw their kids on the weekends.

Meanwhile, paranoia set in.   Is my throat getting sore?  Is this COVID?  What if I end up in the ICU?  Is this just my allergies? Undoubtedly, my fears were a reflection of recent experiences at the hospital.  Just before intubating, I’d watch patients consoling family via FaceTime.  I’d recite in a calm but nervous voice that everything would be OK, and we would take good care of them, knowing the only promise we could fulfill was good care.

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With little hope of progress, I reached out to the one person I was trying to avoid: my attorney.  I avoided contact for two reasons.  First, seeking legal counsel was tantamount to escalating this case to court in front of a judge.  If I win, there would be bitterness that would spill into our co-parenting, which wouldn’t be good for the girls.  Second, attorneys are expensive.  With salary cuts nationwide, now would be a bad time to be embroiled in a costly legal battle.

What I discovered from my attorney was that the pre-pandemic custody orders still applied during the pandemic.  The rules did not change even though the world around it had.  My ex-wife did not have the right to decide how to exercise my time.

Around this time, I heard about Miami emergency physician Theresa Green, who temporarily lost custody of her four-year-old daughter after her ex-husband motioned that her job put their daughter in danger.  After a public outcry, the decision was overturned.  I felt relief, knowing that I wasn’t crazy.

I made one final attempt before engaging attorneys, which included a promise of communication if I encountered a COVID patient, consulting an infectious disease physician, a negative COVID test, and a weeklong vacation.  We had a breakthrough—she’d “think about it.”  A sense of relief overwhelmed me.  Would I finally be able to be with my girls? Were my eyes watering from allergies?

After an amazing week with my daughters, my house was again empty.  Strewn about books and stuffed animal foxes hidden under my pillow were reminders of how lucky I was to have healthy, active daughters.  I returned to the hospital, helping those who needed it most, still uncertain when I’d have the girls again.

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To be clear, I think my ex-wife is an exceptional mother.  She shouldn’t be vilified in any way, and her stance will resonate with many parents.  We were faced with an unprecedented situation.  Balancing fear and reason was paralyzing at times.  Should I have pushed harder or did I play too nice?  I can only hope moving forward that co-parenting is less conflicted and more collaborative.  By sharing my experience, I hope others going through similar hardships are reassured that they are not alone.

The author is an anonymous physician.

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