Dr. Ebony Hunter has been through Hurricane Katrina. She’s also been through the Joplin, Missouri, tornado, one of the deadliest twisters in American history. But in her years as a pediatric emergency room physician, she’s never seen anything like COVID-19.
“I felt like this was the most anxious that any team I had worked with, including myself, had been,” says Hunter, who works in the emergency department of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. “We just didn’t know what was about to happen, how bad it was going to get, if we were going to be able to be prepared.”
Preparation was a constant challenge for Hunter and her colleagues, as CDC guidance on virus prevention and treatment changed every four to six hours in the pandemic’s early days. “[We would] have to change how we dealt with people coming in, where we sent them, and how we triaged them,” Hunter says. “It was this onslaught of information every shift.”
Though children have contracted the virus in far fewer numbers than older folks, an unintended side effect of the pandemic has been parents waiting to seek care for children experiencing other urgent illnesses or injuries to prevent exposure to COVID. Parents may have had the best of intentions by trying to reduce a high fever or clear up abdominal pain at home, Hunter says, but those choices have made it much more difficult to care for kids once they arrived in the emergency room. They’ve seen fewer patients in the ER overall, but the patients they have seen have been much sicker than usual.
As she gave her all to her patients at the hospital, Hunter was privately dealing with the virus’s impacts closer to home. Two of her family members have passed away from the coronavirus, and another two are currently dealing with the illness. In mid-March, Hunter’s uncle was the first person to die from the virus in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, Hunter’s home state. Because this was still the beginning of the pandemic and hospitals were learning how to respond on the fly, Hunter says no family members were allowed at her uncle’s bedside for the majority of his hospitalization, and only one person could be with him when he passed.
It fell to Hunter to explain to her close-knit family that the hospital’s policies were not out of unkindness or maliciousness, but instead were meant to keep the rest of them healthy and safe.
“It was just hard to know as medical professionals that we have to make those decisions and tell families the inconvenient truth of, sorry, you can’t be here,” she says. “Having to explain that this was real to my family — some still didn’t believe how serious it was and some did — was difficult. It was probably one of the hardest things I did.”
To her surprise, they immediately adapted to “love from afar, be supportive from afar,” and they even prepared a remote homegoing funeral ceremony for her uncle. “I was proud of my family for stepping up, probably some of the most proud I’ve ever been, for stepping up to that challenge as a whole,” Hunter adds.
But, she acknowledges, it’s taken a toll on her family. She’s relied on long walks and bike rides around her neighborhood and the support system she and the emergency department team have built to keep herself healthy. She typically sees her family once or twice a month but has adjust ed to seeing them only virtually since February. Because she can’t be there in person to take care of them, Hunter has taken to caring for those around her. She fetches groceries and runs errands for her older neighbors, or she just checks in on them to remind them they aren’t alone.
“To me, it’s all about a cycle. It’s about being a society,” Hunter says. “If you can’t directly help the ones you love that are your family, if you help the one next to you, eventually that chain of help will get back to your family.”