US doctors "self-isolate" to protect their families during COVID-19 pandemic

On the left, a makeshift bed for a healthcare worker. On the right, a message left for a doctor who can't be in contact with his family. Photos from Twitter.
On the left, a makeshift bed for a healthcare worker. On the right, a message left for a doctor who can't be in contact with his family. Photos from Twitter.

Healthcare workers are on the front line of the global coronavirus pandemic. And that means they could potentially bring the disease back into their own homes. Online, doctors, nurses and their partners are recounting how they have deliberately separated their families, with many healthcare workers choosing to leave the shared family space by self-isolating, in basements, trailers, second homes or even occupying a separate floor.

Stacy Smith lives with her family in St Louis, Missouri, in the United States. Her husband Dr Duncan Smith is an emergency room doctor at Mercy Hospital South, the third-largest medical centre in the region. They made the decision to keep her husband separate from the rest of the family while he is working during the pandemic, so as not to infect Stacy or their three children. They bought a trailer in which her husband is going to live for the duration of the pandemic.

"He’s going to live in a trailer for the unforeseeable future"

This has come on very quickly in the US – like in the rest of the world, everyone is surprised at how quickly things have happened. Our family was supposed to leave for spring break this past Thursday and we actually cancelled our flight the same day and decided not to go based on how quickly things were transpiring.  My husband instead spent that time on conference calls with the emergency room, discussing new protocols, procedures, PPE [personal protective equipment] and planning for the inevitable overload on our healthcare system.

He also purchased a trailer to live in for the unforeseeable future. He drove 2.5 hours away to buy the trailer. We’d never considered getting an RV before this. Currently, the plan is to park it at his mother’s place, about 30 minutes away from me and our children.

We honestly have no idea at this point how long it will go on. As long as people are not taking it seriously and are going out to public places and spreading it to others, it could go on for a while.

A photo sent to FRANCE 24 by Stacy Smith showing the small kitchen in the trailer.

My husband and I are upset about it, of course, but we feel it is our moral and ethical duty to stay isolated at the moment. He is on the front lines so there is a high probability of him contracting the virus at some point. My oldest child is a first-grader and has had respiratory issues in the past. I cannot get sick because I am the only caregiver at the moment with schools being closed. So we have decided that my husband has to live in isolation until things calm down.

I have to point out that while it’s frustrating and inconvenient, it’s the right thing to do. If everyone would be a little inconvenienced for a few weeks and just stay home, then healthcare workers’ families can be reunited, our kids can go back to school and we can stop the spread and stop more people from dying.

The family stocked the trailer with basic food supplies. Photo sent to FRANCE 24 by our Observer.

"Daddy, how long are you going to be gone?"

Our plan is to FaceTime my husband every night or day and just act like he’s on an extended trip for the moment. Our children are 6, 5 and 3. They don’t fully grasp how life is about to change at the moment. I’m not sure any of us do. I try to be open and honest with them about the situation, without upsetting them. Right now, they know that there are a lot of really sick people in the world and Daddy has to go to the hospital for a while to help them.  Yesterday, my 5-year-old asked my husband, "Daddy, how long are you going to be gone?" That made us both cry.

Duncan Smith told the FRANCE 24 Observers that healthcare workers around the world deserved to be acknowledged for their role in fighting the pandemic. "There are physicians all over the world that are already active in this fight," he said. "We are preparing right now, but there are countless other physicians who have already made this sacrifice who are nameless but deserve to be recognised."

At the time of writing, the state of Missouri had 13 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, and no deaths.


"My husband has been quarantined to the basement"

The FRANCE 24 Observers also spoke to Stefanie Iwashyna, who is married to Jack Iwashyna, an intensive care unit doctor at the Veterans’ Affairs hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is leading the critical care unit as well as an isolation and evaluation unit for COVID-19. He is quarantining himself in the basement of their house. Stefanie explained how they’ve reconfigured family life.

We’ve quarantined my husband to the basement, where I made up a bed of mattresses on the floor.

I made a caddy of all his necessities: vitamins, shampoo, soap, shaving supplies and fresh towels, and left it down there for when he returned from the first night from working with a COVID-19 patient, so that he wouldn’t have to enter the main part of the house.

Our Observer sent us this photo of some bathroom supplies that she packed for her husband, who had been dealing with COVID-19 patients.

The rest of us are staying out of there completely.  Jack has two sets of scrubs, socks, and underwear. He puts the worn ones in a bag and leaves it at the top of the basement stairs, I launder them and return clean dry clothes for the next day to the top of the stairs.

Jack Iwashyna leaves his used doctors’ scrubs in this bag at the top of the stairs, which his wife washes and returns to him, also in a bag. They have decided not to touch at all for the unforeseeable future, while he is working with COVID-19 cases.

As a family, we are used to Jack being fully engrossed in work, because he typically does two-week blocks in the ICU [intensive care unit], in which he’s working all of his waking hours. So in some ways the big difference is just that we can’t physically touch him (no hugs or kisses) and we’re not interacting with him much at all except for a quick conversation from the top of the stairs or over text.

Right now at least, I’m feeling okay and able to handle everything I need to on the family front on my own. I’m lucky, in that my three children are older and independent. We are also lucky in that we have a separate space in our home that makes this possible.

I think part of why it doesn’t feel like too much of a burden is that I don’t expect it to go one for more than two weeks. If it turns out that he needs to do clinical work for longer – many weeks or even months, I don’t know if we could sustain this.


There are 65 confirmed cases in Michigan. Across the United States, there are over 7,000 confirmed cases, with the death toll recently topping 100.

Article by Catherine Bennett (cfbennett2).