"Working on the frontlines is a huge honor, but I would be lying if I said it's not nerve-wracking."

By Maggie O'Neill
June 26, 2020
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There's still so much we don't know about COVID-19, but doctors and health care workers on the frontlines can agree on at least one thing: The pandemic needs to be taken seriously, no matter your age or past health history.

For the new "From the Frontlines" series, Health spoke to workers fighting COVID-19 head-on in hospitals to find out what they want Americans and the rest of the world to know about the new coronavirus, and what it's like treating those who are infected right now.

"Working on the frontlines is a huge honor," Miriam Bernstein, MD, an ob-gyn at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, tells Health. "But I would be lying if I said it's not nerve-wracking." As an ob-gyn, Dr. Bernstein says she feels like some things have changed a lot due to COVID-19, but some things haven't changed at all. "As far as the labor and delivery aspect of my job, in the vaginal deliveries, we are taking every precaution because it's a physical process," she says, explaining that while delivering children, women are blowing out air with the potential of aerosolized particles that can spread coronavirus. "We are at a similar risk with the delivery process, so we're being very diligent about wearing our N95s and putting our face shield on," she says.

Dr. Bernstein's heightened risk by working with patients infected with the virus has resulted in her own worries about contracting COVID-19. "All you can think about, as you're wearing your PPE, is little tiny things trying to get underneath any gaps in your mask or any holes in your gown," she says.

Abhishek Satishchandran, MD, PhD, an internal medicine physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan, feels similarly when working with COVID-19 patients. "I'm early in my career," he says. "I have a young child at home, and my wife, obviously, and if something were to happen to me, what would I do for them?"

Dr. Satishchandran also worries that people aren't necessarily taking COVID-19 seriously enough, and that they believe the virus won't affect them or their friends and family. “I guarantee you there are people around you that are more susceptible [to COVID-19] than you know,” says Dr. Satishchandran. To that point, he's seen many younger people more recently falling ill. "We are seeing a lot of young people and when I mean young, I mean young—thirties, twenties—that are really suffering from this disease,” he says, adding that some even require support from a ventilator. "Some of them recover, and some do not. It’s not a guarantee that just because you’re young, you’re going to recover,” says Dr. Satishchandran.

Despite their fears of contracting the virus, health care workers still realize they have a job to do—and the extra precautions put in place for COVID-19 make those responsibilities more difficult, too. "There are a lot of people that are, I think, are not comprehending the fact that hospitals have implemented visitor restrictions or visitation," Melvin Makil, PharmD, a hematology and oncology pharmacist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey tells Health. He knows those restrictions are to protect hospital staff, visitors, and patients, "but I can't even fathom the idea of being sick in a hospital and being alone," he says.

"You're being a caregiver but you're also providing that comfort," says Dr. Bernstein. "You try as hard as you can to be that medical professional, but also to have a human aspect of this, because when people say that there's people in ICUs dying alone, it's true," she says.

That's why, according to frontline workers, it's important to continue following state guidelines regarding reopening phases, social distancing orders, and continuing to wear face coverings while out in public. "Trust me, I know quarantining is hard, but think about the difference you're making, and think about how every time you decide to stay in instead of going out, you're directly helping to keep health care workers, their families, and everyone else in your community safe," Tori Spadaro, BSN, RN, a registered nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey tells Health.

But regardless of whether citizens heed the warnings of staying safe during COVID-19 or not, frontline workers are still going to be there to help. "I chose this profession for a reason," says Makil. "It really comes down to a fight-or-flight response and how we approach this and I choose to fight." Dr. Satishchandran echoes that statement: "This is what we are for society," he says. "We need to be here, we need to step up and be this person and help society through this."