Coming home to live a separate life


During the more than 50 years I’ve lived with a registered nurse, I don’t recall ever worrying she would come home from a shift carrying a virus that would threaten my life or the lives of our three kids.

That isn’t the case in a time of COVID-19. I’ve read and heard news stories and social media posts by or about health-care workers and first responders who have that concern. In this age of a deadly and still not completely understood virus, those who work with or around infected people worry a lot.

Most of them, the ones quoted in stories and the ones who put their own thoughts into posts, aren’t desperately worried they will become infected. That bothers them, sure. But they seem to accept it as the job — actually, calling would be a better term. They knew there’s risk, although this particular virus is something none of them could have expected. Plenty of them are angry at the shortage or total absence of necessary protective equipment, but they go to work and protect themselves as best they can while still tending to the suffering people who come into their care.

But their families? That’s a whole other thing. The nurses, doctors, other health-care workers and emergency responders I’ve read about worry a great deal about bringing a virus home to their families. Many of them go to great lengths to make sure that doesn’t happen. I know of families in which the care provider, after each long, exhausting shift at work, returns home to what is essentially an isolation ward. The family has separated off a bedroom and shower, perhaps, and only the caregiver accesses that space. The rest of the family exists in another part of the home. The caregiver and the family members have no physical contact. It must make the family unit feel heartbreakingly incomplete.

Think of that. In such an unsettled time, those front-line people don’t even have the comfort of physical contact after harrowing hours on the job. Imagine being surrounded by sickness and death for 10, 12 or more hours of a hectic, non-stop work shift and not being able to collapse into the arms of your family at home. Instead, when some of these people finish work, they go home to isolation rooms. While they may — most surely do — have verbal communications, they’re denied the simple comfort of a hug or a squeeze of the hand, gestures taken for granted until they are off limits. I’m not sure how I’d handle that. I suspect it wouldn’t be well.


During the Missouri River flooding of 2011, I worked in the state’s Emergency Operations Center for a long month. For the first couple of weeks, the days stretched 15 or 16 hours, a few times more. Working the EOC had no significant danger. Still, fear, suffering and loss were all around. I’d go home after a shift physically exhausted and emotionally drained. I can’t imagine reaching home in that condition and being isolated from my family through the dark night.

During her nursing career, Nancy faced some risky situations, and I worried about her during those times. Especially when she was on surgical call, she’d work day and night sometimes, barely falling into bed before being paged back to the hospital. I sometimes wondered how long she could keep up the pace. But when she was home, we could be together. And we didn’t have to worry she’d bring home a virus.

Sometime after the terrorist attacks in 2001, Nancy was among state volunteers who received smallpox vaccinations. In a time of bio-terrorism fears, it was a test, I guess, of how a person vaccinated as a youngster would react to a second dose. Since she received a live virus, we followed recommendations to avoid contact with each other for a couple of weeks. An abundance of caution. Infection was unlikely but not impossible. Isolation wasn’t fun, but we knew when it would end.

Health-care people today have no idea when they may return to any semblance of normal lives. People suggest timelines, but without guarantees. That must make it even harder to live those separate lives.

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