Watch the AMA's daily COVID-19 update, with insights from AMA leaders and experts about the pandemic.
Featured topic and speakers
In honor of AMA’s Women in Medicine Month, AMA Chief Experience Officer Todd Unger talks with three physician moms about the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, at work and at home.
Learn more at the AMA COVID-19 resource center.
- Vineet Arora, MD, associate chief medical officer, Clinical Learning Environment, University of Chicago Medicine
- Allison Foster, MD, pediatrician, Child and Adolescent Health Associates and Lurie Children's Hospital
- Allison Bartlett, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist, UChicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital
Unger: Hello, this is the American Medical Association's COVID-19 Update. Today, we're discussing the challenges of being a physician mom during COVID-19. This is part of our special series focused on women physicians and patients throughout September in honor of the AMA's Women in Medicine Month.
I'm joined today by Dr. Allison Foster, a pediatrician at Child and Adolescent Health Associates and Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, Dr. Vineet Arora, the Herbert T. Abelson professor and assistant dean for Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine and associate chief medical officer for Clinical Learning Environment at the University of Chicago Medicine in Chicago and Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago. It's an all Chicago crew today, because I'm Todd Unger, AMA's chief experience officer also in Chicago.
Dr. Arora, let's start with you. You had a big change during the pandemic, the birth of your second child. What was that experience like and how was it impacted by COVID-19?
Dr. Arora: Absolutely. Thank you for having me here in honor of Women in Medicine Month and thinking about physician moms. There is no better way to think about COVID than becoming a mom. I had my second. I do want to let people know that, as we all know as physicians, routine care goes on and so moms will continue to deliver babies. And I was fortunate to get really safe, high quality care at the University of Chicago Medicine. It was of course, nerve wracking. And also, I was in the thick of the planning and helping my hospital prepare similar to Dr. Bartlett and Dr. Foster. And so going from that to being a patient right away was also concerning.
But, I will say that I felt a kinsmanship to my colleagues who I knew were doing the best to care for me and my baby and help everybody. And so I've advised a lot of other moms, including physicians and non-physicians, that you can get the care that you need, and it's a joyous occasion and try to take the joy along with the anxiety that you're going to have during a pandemic.
Unger: Well, childcare has obviously become a bigger challenge for families with the pandemic. What's the situation with your children in school and how are you navigating and balancing with these new challenges? Dr. Foster, why don't you start?
Dr. Foster: Yeah. Thank you for having me, Todd. This is a great event that we're a part of. That's a great question. This is a unique time, and it's very difficult for us as working moms who work full time and have children who are of school age to try to navigate the best scenario for their care, especially when school is concerned.
This is especially unique because in my instance, we relied a lot on my parents for our caregivers after school. And as we're trying to keep them in a safe space and a lower risk space, we haven't been relying on them. So my husband and I have really had to get creative with our schedules. Thankfully, both of our jobs have allowed us that flexibility to do so. And we're just doing the best we can to make it work.
Unger: Dr. Bartlett, anything to add?
Dr. Bartlett: I would echo what Dr. Foster just mentioned. It is difficult to balance your reliance on grandparents with also wanting to keep them safe. I've got school aged kids who are doing remote learning because that was the school decision, although I think there are ways to manage kids safely in school. But, my kids definitely are an age where they need supervision and cannot be relied on to go independently work, so it definitely adds complexity.
Unger: Dr. Barlett, what has been your biggest personal challenge outside of childcare?
Dr. Bartlett: So my other responsibility here at the University of Chicago is the associate medical director of the Infection Control Program. And so as early as January, when we started getting an inkling of what might be coming, my life got completely taken over by COVID. All of my other work stopped completely. It was seven days a week, check-in in the morning, check out at nine o'clock at night, pages all night of trying to make sure that our institution was prepared.
Our health care workers were reassured that they know how to care for patients who might be contagious, because that's what we do all the time. And then just deal with the sudden influx of the pandemic experience coming fast and furious and synthesizing it, again, without great data.
And now, I'm at a point where I'm picking up the pieces of all of these projects that just got put on pause and I'm finally reentering thinking about things other than COVID, sometimes.
Unger: Well, Dr. Foster, whether or not you've specifically cared for COVID patients, have you had fears about potentially exposing your own family to the disease and how do you cope with that?
Dr. Foster: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. Personally, I have not had fears of myself contracting COVID partly because I think as is true with doctors Bartlett and Arora, we all went into medicine knowing that there is risk involved in what we do and our families, even, I think our younger children understand what we do, the necessity of it, the importance of it, and what comes along with it.
I will say, early on in the pandemic, my youngest, my six year old did ask me one night when I was tucking him into bed, he said, "Mommy, are you going to get sick at work?" He was hearing a lot about COVID. We talk very openly in my home about current events and issues. And my kids ask a lot of really good questions. And I was a little taken aback because I didn't realize how much he was probably internalizing a lot of what he was hearing and his own fears were coming out.
So we spent a bit of time talking about how the likelihood of that happening is low, especially being in pediatrics, as we know, and the patients that I deal with and what would happen if that were to be an issue. And that provided a lot of reassurance to him.
So, no, I haven't had too much of that concern. And I think I would be well-equipped to deal with it if that were to happen.
Unger: Well, Dr. Bartlett as an infectious disease specialist, how does watching the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 play out and concern you as a parent and how are we seeing the disease play out with children?
Dr. Bartlett: So fortunately, unlike flu or RSV or other respiratory viruses, pediatric patients are in general, not getting very sick with COVID, which I can't explain, but I'm grateful for to the tune that many pediatric ICUs had to accept adult patients because of our big influx at the surge.
But in infectious diseases, we are always dealing with unknowns and uncertainties and fall back on our, again, practices about how do we keep our patients safe, how do we keep ourselves safe? I wish we had more exciting tools than masks and washing our hands and staying physically distant. But the truth is, those work across the board for a variety of pathogens. And so it really is just hammering those things home.
And I think the kids are doing remarkably well with understanding masking and why we're doing this. And we're able to message really well to kids that this is to help keep everybody safe. And that's something that really resonates with kids.
Unger: Dr. Arora, you're a founder of the group called IMPACT. Can you tell us about what IMPACT is and why it's really needed right now?
Dr. Arora: Yeah, so picking up on what my colleague Dr. Bartlett has said, there has been a lot of misinformation in the community. And I think that I was more privy to it in the sense that I went from supporting the front line and the trainees and all of the essential workers at our hospital to being a patient. And then being part of our community and having a lot of people stop by on the front doorstep and being like, "Do I really need to wear a mask? What can I do to help?" And I'm like, "You really do need to wear a mask." And I was seeing a lot of misinformation, even in our own community.
And I worked with a variety of other physicians and other health professionals on social media. And I think around the time of St. Patrick's Day in Chicago, we're all Chicagoans here, we saw the crowds at the bars, we saw the O'Hare pictures, and a lot of us were together doing so much work in our hospital thinking, how is this disconnect, this complete cognitive dissonance between what we're being told by Allison and the other folks in Infection Control to protect us and our families, meanwhile, we're watching our communities and our neighbors go out and revel, what can we do?
And so IMPACT stands for Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team. And really what we do is we try to push out solid, good information and messaging around those behaviors that can really help people social distancing and masking, but also advise policy makers, as well as take action where we can on issues that matter to not only health professionals like PPE, but also to our patients and our communities.
Unger: Well, a last question, one for each of you, a lightening round. Can you give me the big piece of advice that you have for other physician moms who are trying to balance everything--work and this pandemic? Dr. Foster, why don't you start?
Dr. Foster: Sure. I will just take a step back and say, I don't know if balance is achievable. I don't know if you, my colleagues here would agree with me, but I'm not sure that balance is achievable. And I don't know if we want to strive for that because it might be a bit of a unattainable goal. But I think on a daily basis, we can do the best that we can to make sure that we are taking care of ourselves first, that we're taking care of our family, our children and our household.
And then really doing the absolute best we can now that we're equipped with having taken care of ourselves to care for our patients in a manner of the highest level. And for everyone that might mean a little bit something different in how you care for yourself. It may be finding a little bit of time early in the morning to do yoga, or to read, or after work trying to get a workout in, or some late night reading as you drift off to bed. But, the self-care is really the most important care in my opinion.
Unger: Dr. Bartlett, what's your advice?
Dr. Bartlett: Well, I echo the things that Dr. Foster said. And I really wish it didn't feel like I was still living in survival mode, but we are. It's not as bad as in the pandemic when I was seven days a week working, but I'm struggling to find ways to care for myself. I love going to get a massage or going to grab a bite to eat somewhere, but all of my self care has to happen in the same bubble where I'm working and my kids are in school and we're all driving each other up the walls. And so patience and grace are really important. My husband is much more patient than I am, and I'm very fortunate that we can tap in and tap out and take some breaks. It's a struggle.
And I think it's going to be a long time before we get back to whatever the new normal is. And working with our kids to understand that this is not fair and this is difficult for everybody, I think it's really opened up some good conversations for our family.
Unger: Dr. Arora?
Dr. Arora: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think that the key is that you're never alone. And so we're all suffering through this together, Women in Medicine Month, back to school this week, remote learning going on downstairs. And so I know I mentioned IMPACT. It's a group of largely physician moms, but some dads and we share life hacks, what can we do? And so I think as opposed to the perfectly curated social media life that some people like to project, now is a time to say, I need help and here is what life chaos is in my house, and get that help and share those best practices.
And so my one tip, which I shared to somebody the other day was, I need somebody to program a reminder for my daughter that something is happening. So I literally now tell Alexa to tell her that she has a Zoom coming up the following day, because if I'm up here, at least the reminder will go off and alert her. But, just little life hacks like what else can we do, whether it's technology or other team members to make ourselves, give ourselves the space to say, it's okay, we're not going to be perfect, but we're going to try.
Unger: I mean, you just gave me an idea for a future COVID-19 Update segment on life hacks. That's excellent advice. So thank you so much Dr. Foster, Dr. Bartlett and Dr. Arora for being here today and sharing your perspectives. We're really glad to have you be part of our Women in Medicine Month.
We'll be back soon with another COVID-19 Update. In the meantime, for COVID-19 resources, visit ama-assn.org/COVID-19. Thanks for joining us and please take care.