Commentary

Sending my spouse to fight COVID-19 feels like sending him into combat

Our government leaders are calling this a war. They say our response to COVID-19 is a fight — a battle we will eventually win. So I’m about to kiss my physician husband goodbye and send him into combat. Again.

My husband has gone to war before. I knew when we started dating my second year of college that he planned on joining the military. He was bursting with confidence but was also impeccably focused on preparing himself physically and academically with the skills he might need: he returned unfazed from 15-mile runs and held his breath as he swam pool length after pool length underwater. I told him one night as I was falling in love with him that I wished I was our campus pool so he’d spend that much time with me. I didn’t feel selfish until he told me he was willing to die for our country but hoped he wouldn’t have to.

My husband was assigned to support of some of the most highly-specialized special operations forces in our military. And that meant he was gone. All the time. For training, for schools, and before long, for deployments. Iraq. Afghanistan. The Horn of Africa. Tarmacs and airstrips in countries he won’t name.

Knowing that someone you love is going into danger feels like your stomach is being hollowed out and filled with rocks and mud. It’s both an emptiness and a heaviness. It’s the desperate helplessness, the sense that no matter how loudly you scream, no one will hear and no one will come. It’s the feeling that you are suffering, and lonely, and that the one person who can make it better is gone, possibly forever.

That is how I feel today. My husband is a resident at a major hospital. Since March 16, he happens to have been on his scheduled vacation time. And next week, as the coronavirus pandemic is expected to reach its peak in the U.S., he’ll go back into the hospital. I wonder if he’ll be any safer there than he was in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Health care workers in the U.S. are exceptionally vulnerable to coronavirus, and we now know the virus is riskier to younger people than anyone thought. Doctors have described a terrifying shortage of ventilators for patients struggling to gasp for breath. Retired nurses and doctors and not-yet-graduated medical students are being prepared to deploy to hospitals and clinics where they can be put to use stemming a tide of coughing, feverish and fearful people who can’t and won’t all be saved.

My husband left for military deployments with the top gear and equipment. Next week, he’ll go into hospitals where nurses are asking friends and neighbors for donations of facemasks and hand sanitizer. When he went overseas it was his job to know what threats his team would face. Here, if he thinks he’s been exposed to the virus it’s unclear if he’ll even have access to get tested for it.

We argued a few days ago, as the impending transition started to feel like a river rock slowly sinking into my gut: the old familiar countdown. I felt depressed, and overwhelmed at the prospect of weeks at home trying to work and be a full-time parent. I needed more support. I needed help. But my husband told me he had nothing left to give.

“How can I make you understand what my days are like?” he asked. He wakes up by 5 a.m. and spends every moment rushing between patients, answering calls and seeing consults. He meets with families to explain that their loved ones are dying. They weep and yell at him, demanding he do more. He calls social workers and translators and chaplains. When he makes it home in time for bedtime, I know he’ll fall asleep in my son’s Batman bed and emerge hours later to groggily review patient charts. Studies have shown that the prolonged stress on new doctors actually causes their chromosomes to age six times faster than normal: their jobs are literally hastening their deaths already.

In the military, that kind of unrelenting pace was motivated by patriotism and passion. It had an end date, even if that information was classified. But now I’m worried; what will COVID demand of him beyond what he’s already giving, and can our family withstand it?

Overseas, my husband was part of teams that trained together for days and weeks to conduct operations seamlessly. Every guy knew what his role was and what the contingency plans were. There were backup communications and backups to the backups. From what we are hearing from our public health experts, there are no backups because there is no plan.

This week my family will make our own contingency plans. We’ll decide if my husband should sleep in the hospital or the garage or attempt to decontaminate his clothes and body before our two little boys can jump on him when he comes through the door — if they’re still awake at whatever ungodly hour he manages to break away. We’ll dance around what will happen if I have to quit my job to take care of them, since preschool may be closed for the rest of year.

He’ll try to assuage my mounting anxiety — based on recent restrictions in other hospital systems—that I’ll end up laboring and delivering our third child this summer alone.

In all likelihood, he will be exposed. And in all likelihood, we will be okay. Most people who are infected with COVID-19 recover. He’s still young enough and healthy enough to expect that his body could do what it needs to do to fight its own personal fight against the virus. And, with savings and his steady job, we’re in a better situation than many.

I try to hold on to those truths when I feel that rocky mud starting to fill the pit of my stomach. When I feel myself starting to scream.

When I prepare to kiss him goodbye.

Jennifer Brookland is an American Homefront Project Veterans Fellow at North Carolina Public Radio- WUNC, where she reports on military and veterans’ issues. She began her career with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations. She’s worked in communications for international development organizations and as a freelance writer and editor for clients including the United Nations and the World Bank. Jennifer has a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University and a master’s in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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