By Dr. Muhammad Ismail Khalid Yousaf
“Did you see any COVID-19 patients today?” my wife nervously asked as I entered our home. I was clad in an N-95 mask for the first time. “Not yet” I replied.
My mask and her concerns were well-warranted; we were about to be first-time parents, and she was in her last trimester. Our relatives and friends would routinely ask, “When is your gift from God coming?” and we always cautiously replied, “Anytime now, just pray—you know how times are….”
It was early February of 2020. News had spread around the world of the incredibly contagious virus sweeping away lives in China and Europe, and the entire planet was in a frenzy. Health care providers had rightfully sounded the alarm, warning the global medical community that PPE (personal protective equipment) like my N-95 mask was vital, as the COVID-19 virus knew no borders or treatment at that point.
Getting the facts straight about COVID-19’s virulence, infective symptoms, and preventive measures was an uphill battle due to all the many unknowns and the uproar of misinformation. The situation in the United States evolved rapidly. On February 3rd, the U.S. government announced a public health emergency. Just three weeks later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a statement announcing that we were heading into a pandemic.
In the midst of this intense saga, as an international medical graduate (IMG) physician, I was burdened with the additional stress of wondering how the pandemic would affect my visa status, my ability to travel, and the services I relied on in the United States as a nonimmigrant resident.
Would my wife and I be able to fly back home on short notice if something were to happen to our loved ones? Would our health insurance cover the cost of treatment if we got infected? How did our life insurance coverage apply to the current scenario? Were international embassies going to be open if we had to travel back, and would those embassies still assist with our visa renewals? Could we be furloughed at any time?
Our families back home were also understandably concerned. My mom, a future first-time grandmother, urged me to stay home. “Please tell your department about your situation,” she told me. “Maybe they will grant you paternal leave early.”
When my wife and I visited our obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN), we tried to find out what the virus’s impact would be on a pregnant mother and baby’s development. Our OB/GYN informed us that no one knew yet how COVID-19 impacted pregnancy, but he promised to keep us updated as new information was uncovered. He tried his best to lower our apprehensions, but our worries were legitimate and could not be assuaged without clear answers, which would take time to be discovered.
In the meantime, we focused on prevention. We rigorously researched the extra precautions I could take after returning from the hospital, and we implemented all of them. When I reached the door of our apartment, I would knock three times as a signal to my wife so she could move to another room. Once the coast was clear, I entered and went immediately to the restroom to take a shower. I put my used scrubs in a hazard bag and placed that bag in a cupboard. After washing up, I used disinfectant all over the restroom and every corner of the home I may have touched on my way inside. Everything was a potential source of viral transmission, from my keys to my hospital identity card to my cell phone. We would wear surgical masks and maintain a 6-foot distance from each other whenever we were in the same room. We would eat in seclusion and even use different utensils. We were essentially estranged. We did not know if our efforts would work or if it would even be worth it in the end—we just tried our best with the information we had.
After weighing the pros and cons, we chose to schedule a date for an elective delivery. This way, we could physically and mentally prepare for the big day with some certainty in these very uncertain times.
Scared and a little shaky, I finally went to my program director to tell her what was going on in my personal life. Gradually, I opened up to her about my concerns and how I was feeling.
She listened to me calmly. With compassion and understanding, she said, “I know this Is stressful. Both of you, take it one day at a time, and sometimes an hour at a time. You will be fine. Remember, you both are not alone. We will be here with whatever help you need.”
In that moment, support from my work family meant the world to an IMG physician who was 7,000 miles away from his family in Pakistan. It also showed me how encouraging kind words and reassurance from your supervisor can be in difficult times. It can boost your confidence and make you more optimistic about your future.
On March 6, 2020, my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful baby boy, Jibran. We were of course overjoyed, but the last few weeks had taken quite a toll on us both, and we knew being first-time parents during the COVID-19 pandemic would not be an easy task either. Luckily, my family was able to fly in and be with us to offer their helping hands.
The very same day my son was born, my host state of Kentucky admitted its first COVID-19 case into my hospital system. Our nurse broke the news to us. “For us, it begins today,” she said wearily. She left the room with a deep sigh.
On March 11, 2020—5 days later—COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). On March 13th, 2020, the United States declared it a national emergency.
We were of course not the only family expecting a baby in these uncertain times, and I was not alone in preparing to be a new parent while also bracing myself to be on the front lines against the COVID-19 pandemic. The families who went through this can all relate to each other. At a time when we were all tested by God, we also had to protect the most precious gift given to us by God: that of the lives of our children.