By Susan Olcott
“I call my nanny on my way home, sneak into the garage, take off my scrubs, and head straight to the shower. Then, I get to hug my daughter.” That’s Dr. Sara Nelson, Emergency Medicine doctor at Maine Medical Center in Portland, describing the complex motions she goes through to isolate her home life from her work life. She is a first responder for incoming cases of COVID-19, and she is a single mom of two-year-old Rye.
Sara has always had a balancing act to care for her daughter and juggle shifts at the hospital. But now she has a few more obstacles. Not only does she have to do a stealth re-entry and quick change at the end of each shift, but also the daycare where Rye usually goes three days a week is closed. Nevertheless, she’s managing the challenges. “I’ve been working more, but I’m finding space to do it,” says Sara. “And, it’s all worth it. It’s what I’m trained to do. I take care of patients that have corona virus every day—that’s my job and I’m proud to do it.”
Her job has certainly changed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. She’s working many more long nights and weekends. And she, along with many of her colleagues, is splitting her duties between two sides of the now split Emergency Department (ED). The ED is divided in half right now, with half designated as the Biothreat Unit. “For patients on that side, we act as if everyone who comes into that unit has COVID,” she says.
Changing scrubs at the end of the day is nothing compared to the futuristic suit she dons when she goes into the Biothreat Unit. “We each have to wear a PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator). You have this big white hood attached to a pack on your back that blows air through the hood. You have to put it on in a specific way and then enter a sealed unit,” she says
“It’s pretty much like walking around in a space suit,” she says. It’s not only uncomfortable, but it changes the way that she can interact with both her colleagues and her patients. “You have no peripheral vision, and it’s really hard to talk and to hear others,” she adds. “You feel disconnected from the patient. And you can’t do some of the normal things like use a stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heart and lungs. It has really changed the ability to have an intimate connection with a patient.” Still, she and the other doctors have had to adapt to protect themselves and the patients. We’ve learned to speak loudly and make better eye contact,” says Sara. “We’re learning to work within this new normal.”
While adjusting to the new normal, Sara is trying to retain some sense of normalcy in her personal life. “I’m staying socially distant like everyone else right now, but I also feel fortunate in a weird way because I get to go to work and talk to people.”
It’s a tough choice to maintain her life at home, when some of her colleagues have chosen not to live with their families during this time. “It’s hard, because I’m potentially exposing my daughter by being a frontline provider, but I can’t imagine being without my daughter, so I do the best I can,” she says. She’s also formed a new kind of family unit. Her nanny, who is working more hours these days, does the grocery shopping and lives nearby. “She has decided that she is part of our family and we are part of hers.”
Free time is not something Sara has a lot of these days, but she is grateful to live in a place like Maine where the outdoors is so accessible. From her home on Littlejohn Island in Yarmouth, she can go for runs or hikes in the woods or play on the swing set with her daughter.
“From a recreational perspective, I’m lucky I don’t have to leave,” she says. “One of my favorite things in Maine is the ability to get outside,” she says. “I’m an avid biker and runner, but what I love most is getting out on the water either on my stand-up paddleboard or my Whaler. I love to explore Casco Bay.”
She isn’t from Maine originally, but chose it after medical school at Harvard and a residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. After those experiences, she was eager to leave the city environment. She hadn’t spent much time in Maine, despite growing up in New Hampshire and then living in Boston, but she found that Maine was a good fit for a woman who spends most of her free time out of doors.
In fact, one her past jobs was as a wilderness medicine instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)—not your average resume line for an Emergency doc. She also helped found Global Emergency Care, a non-profit organization that trains local nurses to provide emergency care in Uganda, and she did relief work following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Sara Nelson is used to challenges—from medical school to outdoor leadership to single parenting. Still, her role in the current situation is something different. “What’s so hard is that we don’t know when it’s going to end,” she says. “But, I’m grateful to have the skills to help during something like this. And, I’m hopeful that good things will come out of it, too. I try to focus on the positive things people are doing for each other, and I think, “Let’s make the world a better place after this is all over.”