Perspective: Married to Medicine

Nicholas Goodmanson and Rachel Mennies Rachel Mennies, spouse of critical care doctor and Pitt alumnus Nicholas Goodmanson (MED ’13, ’16, ’18), writes about the worries and moments of connection she and other partners of physicians are experiencing during the pandemic.

The first big question none of us on the group chat knew the answer to—that we still don’t have a certain answer to—was, “Should we still sleep next to our spouses?”

Since graduation, our group chat of six partners of School of Medicine emergency medicine residents usually hummed quietly over the years, flaring mostly with celebrations of births and new jobs. But in this difficult late winter, questions about how to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak firmly took their place.

My spouse, Nicholas Goodmanson (MED ’13), did all his medical training under Pitt physicians, including an emergency medicine residency (’16) and a critical care fellowship (’18). Today, Nick works as an intensivist, a doctor focused on the most critically ill patients, in Chicago. In March, because of the pandemic, he transitioned from his typical schedule working in several specialty ICUs to a dedicated, ad hoc COVID-19 unit at Advocate Christ Medical Center on Chicago’s South Side. His group built the unit from other previously allocated hospital wings and recently had to double their capacity by putting two beds in single-bed rooms. The patients, he says, keep coming and coming.

For now, we are both healthy, or at least asymptomatic.

We spouses are texting each other from our homes as we practice strict social distancing, all of us knowing the additional risk for infection brought into our homes by the doctors we love. Within these spaces scattered across the United States, from Florida to Boston to Washington state, we’ve begun to face something unprecedented.

“Is it safe for our spouses to hug our kids after work?” we ask each other. “To hug me?” Many doctors managing COVID-19 patients are living separately from their families during the pandemic.

“How do we keep the apartment sanitized—and what about their clothes, or their shoes? How many hours are being added to their schedules? Does your spouse have enough personal protective equipment?”

“Have any of their colleagues tested positive yet?” we ask. “Have you?”

As folks “married to medicine,” as the old joke goes, we partners of doctors and trainees have already learned to live with uncertainty. On Match Day, a slim white envelope determines your fates for the duration of residency. And each new level of training brings the possibility of a cross-country move, job changes and major life events spent apart.

When residency began for our family, I remember the lonely unpredictability of Nick’s early, seemingly unending shifts. I remember stuffing his share of dinner-for-two into a Tupperware container. I remember driving to pick him up outside of UPMC Presbyterian at midnight in our Honda Fit, idling on snowy Pittsburgh hills as I waited for him to surface. I remember worrying about him up in the STAT MedEvac helicopter, hovering over the three rivers, zooming out over Western Pennsylvania, maybe even Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland. During those 36 hour shifts, I’d imagine him looking down as he approached another town, en route to a critically ill patient, to life-or-death traumas.

But Nick and I weren’t alone. Aside from one another, we were with other people who got it—both the deep challenges and the unexpected joys of medical training. With other Pitt Med folks, we built a communal normalcy from this unusual life: We not only got it together, we got through it together.

In both residency and fellowship, perhaps sensing how quickly we’d need each other, we partners immediately made standing monthly dinner dates. We passed around each other’s babies at barbecues and house parties; we held showers and happy hours. In this community, despite our many other differences, we all shared this one strange, difficult fact: the people we loved would treat the patients who needed them without question at all hours, even at great personal risk. And when we couldn’t be with our spouses, we had each other. We understood our lonesomeness and uncertainty as shared, and we talked about it.

I work as a writer and editor, this month entirely from home. I watch Nick go to the hospital and come back from my vantage at the desk or the sofa, and we keep each other company at a distance somewhere between six feet apart and our usual inches, a compromise between what we need and what we must do. Because we can, we sleep in separate rooms, just to be safe; we walk the dog together when we can, and we eat together when he’s free. I worry about him getting sick, or me. And each time my phone lights up, I fear what I might read there from our friends, especially those who are also so proximate to the virus every single day, for however long the pandemic will persist.

By the time this article is published, our lives will have changed unknowably from when I first drafted the piece on the last Saturday of March—your life, and mine, and Nick’s, and all of our colleagues’ and friends’ lives. And there are moments when this utter, interminable uncertainty, as it did on the toughest days of residency, renders me useless. Like on a rare-for-Chicago warm day last week, on a walk with the dog alone, when the smell of mulch reminded me that winter had somehow become spring during the stay-at-home order. I wondered if our neighbors had planted tulips, but I couldn’t safely get close enough to ask them. I wanted to cry—but I couldn’t touch my face.

Instead, I went inside and washed my paper-dry hands for 20 seconds, and I made dinner, leaving part for the freezer in case we need an emergency meal next month. Then I reached out with a video hello to a dear friend from fellowship, a friend whose partner was on the night shift in a Milwaukee ICU. I leaned on the couch as we talked, as if it were her shoulder.