FMWC Members share their experience during the Covid-19 Crisis

Over the next several weeks, the FMWC will be highlighting the work of our members during the Covid-19 crisis.  If you would like to submit a piece, please email us [email protected]  

Mamta Gautam, MD, MBA, FRCPC, CCPE
Dept of Psychiatry, The Ottawa Hospital
Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa
President, CEO, Peak MD Inc

On March 11, 2020, at 1:30 am, I arrived back in Ottawa after teaching a PLI leadership course for Women Leaders in Medicine in Calgary. I had been out of town for work for several days, each one feeling increasingly tense with more information and news of the impact of the coronavirus.  My husband and I would speak about it on our daily phone calls, sharing new information and new concerns, especially as it seemed to be hitting New York City hard. I was relieved to be home. The next day, on March 12, WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.  Things started to shut down.  Meetings and conferences at which I was scheduled to speak were cancelled - initially for March, then for April; within days, my schedule was cleared until the fall. Many colleagues wondered about cancelling plans for the March break.  We decided to defer all of our travel for several months.  By March 18, Ontario was in a state of lockdown.

There was a lot of energy and adrenaline as we collectively prepared for the pandemic to hit us.  I transitioned to working from home and received a crash course in technology that following week.  The American Medical Women's Association meeting planned for the end of March was changed to a virtual one, and I had to learn to add audio to my PowerPoint presentation, upload it to the cloud and onto a server, and learn how to attend a Zoom meeting and share slides.  My clinical work transitioned to telephone assessments, and I learned how to access Epic and dictate charts from home.

Throughout that week, I received calls, emails and texts from friends and colleagues across Canada who were feeling overwhelmed, asking about resources “for docs to stay calm in this current crisis”. A longtime friend from Nova Scotia asked “why don’t you set something up? A lot of us are shaking in our boots while firm in our commitment to go face the demons.” I decided to do just that.

Since March 16, I have been holding daily free Zoom calls, seven days a week, for colleagues across Canada.  There is no commitment; they can just join in when they want for however they wish.  This is peer support, not therapy or psychiatric care.  Nothing is recorded, and I do my best to create and maintain a safe and confidential environment for connecting and sharing and support.  I have helped many others set up similar peer support sessions across the country, and offer them mentoring and supervision. We are in our 7th week.  We have moved through the intial couple of weeks of planning and preparing filled with anticipatory anxiety, into working on the front lines or feeling guilty if we were not,  then relief as it looked as if we were doing a good job of flattenning the curve, and now where it feels quiet and anticlimactic and we are holding our breath as we wait for what is ahead.

I have had the opportunity to write articles and be invited to deliver webinars on aspects of Coping with COVID19 to international and national groups of physicians. Much of this is pro bono yet meaningful; I have time, health and privilege.  It keeps me busy and feeling useful even though I am not in the front lines.  I have had to be thoughtful about not overdoing it, as there are multiple daily requests for my time.  I overheard my husband say to a friend on the phone that I was more available to him when I was away travelling for work!   I now define and protect our family time together.

The days have a predictable rhythm.  Every morning, I go for a run, and get showered and ready for the day.  I dress to be comfortable and professional. By 8 am, I am in a meeting or delivering a webinar, assessing patients virtually, or writing.  At 4 pm daily, I start my national Zoom call with colleagues. I have found the perfect spot in my house from where I work, and have learned to create a routine to start my day and end my day. My husband continues to go to work at the hospital every morning.  We have developed a consistent process of decontamination for him as he returns home at the end of the day. We are enjoying time together, and staying actively connected with family and friends virtually. I am surprised at how much I miss my adult children, acknowledging my stronger-than-ever need as a mother to gather them around me to protect them. One of my sons is living in Germany, and is in lockdown, safe and well.  Another is a surgical resident in Toronto; he continues to be in the frontlines, has been quarantined after unprotected contact with a COVID19-positive patient, tested negative and remains well.  His twin brother is finishing his last year of medical school in Halifax, with a sense of anticlimax as the last month of classes were online, without the anticipated celebratory connections with his classmates, the LMCC exam deferred, and convocation cancelled.  He is trying to figure out the details of moving to Toronto in the middle of a pandemic to start his Anesthesia residency.

There are silver linings.  I am enjoying being at home and not travelling.  There is time for cooking special meals, baking bread, and making cocktails.  We have figured out how to order our groceries, which of our favorite food shops will deliver, and where to find yeast and hair colour.  I have time to run every day, curl up with a book, watch a movie.  We celebrated my husband’s 65th birthday over 7 different Zoom calls with family and friends around the world, delighting in being able to connect and laugh together.

These are emotional times. There have been celebrations for sure.  There are also multiple losses: the loss of normalcy, the loss of control, the loss of predictability, the loss of connections.  I hear about these daily from colleagues, and experience them personally.  There is the daily fear as my husband goes into the hospital and is at risk of exposure.  A close friend who is a nurse tested positive for coronavirus; we were highly concerned for days and then truly relieved as she recovered.  I was devastated to hear of the tragic death by suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, the head of an emergency room in New York City.  I had met her when she attended a leadership course I was teaching.  She was truly brilliant, dedicated, compassionate and strong.  I am reminded that any one of us can be pushed to a dark place in the midst of this situation.  We will need to continue to show compassion for ourselves and for each other, be kind and caring, share strength and support as we get through this together.