OPINION

In our two-surgeon family, COVID changed everything. Here are the lessons I'm taking with me.

Pre-pandemic, American families spent as little at 37 minutes a day together. Some changes brought on by the pandemic were difficult, but rewarding.

Ami Shah and Steven Salzman with their son, Jai Salzman, and daughter, Alina Salzman, apple picking in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, in the fall of 2020.
Dr. Ami N. Shah
Opinion contributor

As many parts of the world start to open up from the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinated people no longer need masks in many cities in the U.S. and beyond, it feels as if the world is returning to pre-pandemic life. 

The pandemic was a difficult time for most everyone. For many in health care, COVID-19 was like war. As a physician, I understand many of us essential workers came home with the post-traumatic stress symptoms seen in military veterans and trauma victims. 

Still, from the past year and a half, there are lessons I want to keep.

First was the ability to really be with my family, including my physician husband, my 10-year-old son and my 7-year-old daughter. Prior to the pandemic, between work obligations, sports, work events and school events, we hadn’t really spent any long periods of time together in a day or on the weekends.

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A 2018 study shows that pre-pandemic, American families surveyed spent as little at 37 minutes a day together. With COVID and the abrupt stoppage of everything but my work, we had no choice but to really spend time with each other.

The difficult, and the deepening

As a two-surgeon family, we had to confront the uncertainty of everyday life. We had no idea if it was safe to have a child care provider in the home; we worried that we were risks to them.

Our children attended remote school, which was a struggle for us, and we were scared to ask my parents to help because of their own health problems. My husband's elderly parents lived far away. Our children were scared that mommy was going to work and die from a virus they didn’t understand. 

Ami Shah in Chicago, Illinois,  in November 2020.

There were joyful moments, too. In the midst of the pandemic, we went apple picking as a family for the very first time. Yet the hardest but most rewarding part resulting from COVID restrictions, was having the deeper conversations around death, politics and the next best decision we could make.

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We made a will and made hard decisions about what we wanted if we got sick. Would we want to stay on a ventilator if there was no chance of survival? “No” for me, but “yes” for my husband. My children asked if they were in danger of dying because they aren’t white. When we probed deeper, we found that they didn’t even know what “white” meant, just that they weren’t.   

COVID enabled us to get to know each other better. While this process was something I bemoaned early in the pandemic (I remember yelling at my husband to never turn on the TV to avoid the news), these conversations forced me to really crystallize the pandemic down to something our elementary school-aged children could understand.

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I learned so much about what my husband thought about death, including where he wanted to be buried and what measures he would want me to take if he was critically ill. I learned that my daughter really thinks that she is inherently worthy and truly believes that she can do anything. I learned about the depths of my son's anxiety. He woke up worried everyday about everyone in the world – including us – even before the pandemic started.   

Apparently we aren't the only ones. A 2020 One Poll survey found that for  66% of those surveyed, the pandemic has brought their family closer.

Health care providers are hurting

The second lesson I want to keep is the emphasis many more in our society place on mental health. In health care, it was acceptable for our patients to have mental health struggles, but the stigma among health care professionals struggling with mental health was striking.

As so many of us lived through the early times of chaos and fear, risk of ventilator shortages, morgue trucks parked outside hospitals, ongoing racial health access disparities, and heightened racial injustice, it became too much for many to bear. 

Health care workers were being called heroes, but the work and home pressures began to feel insurmountable. In the short term, the psychological distress from COVID contributed to skyrocketing rates of burnout, which was already a problem before the pandemic.

As we reeled from the trauma, I found it became OK among my colleagues to ask for help. It was OK to feel hopeless, sad, burned out and unable to deal with all the pressures. The call to improve mental health resources for all health care workers has never been stronger. Now, health care administrators and experts must also address the long-term mental health effects on health care workers.

I’m proud that I’ve done more for my own mental health and well-being that I’ve ever done before. Spending more time with my family is part of that. 

Finally, gratitude is a pandemic takeaway. While the pandemic has brought about many dark and scary times, the pandemic has also helped me focus on what’s important.

I'm grateful for the advances of science, that the vaccine was developed in less than one year. I’m grateful I get to help people. I’m healthy. I get to learn about my own blindness to racial equity and respond differently. 

In spite of the societal deficiencies the pandemic has highlighted, it’s also brought about immeasurable change not just in me, but perhaps the world.

Dr. Ami N. Shah is an associate professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at Rush University Medical Center, a Public Voices Fellow of TheOpEd Project and a certified life coach.