Dr. Dad

By Charles McKenzie, June 18, 2020
Frontline doctor/father fights to keep COVID from hitting home.

One of the iconic and enduring images of parenthood is a child rushing to greet a parent coming home from work. As with so many other things, COVID-19 has changed that. For front-line medical personnel like Dr. Jay Sellers ’05, that formerly bright part of his day is yet another battle with the beast.

With so much time spent on the front lines of the healthcare crisis, Sellers, an infectious disease specialist, and his wife, a pulmonary doctor, are both terrified of infecting their children with the same disease they’ve been treating for months. So their two daughters (both under 4) must wait for warm welcomes until scrubs are carefully peeled off out in the garage and thorough showers are taken as their parents perform their final defense of the day against disease transmission.

Unfortunately, the rough days, especially now, may be even harder to shed, especially in a two-doctor family. It’s double the exposure both to the virus itself and to the mental toll it takes. They debrief when there’s time. Sellers’ wife Subhashini Sellers is on the COVID response team at the University of North Carolina Hospitals, treating the most critically ill patients, often on ventilators in the intensive care unit.

Back in early January at a regular committee meeting at Raleigh Infectious Diseases Associates where he works, Sellers’ team had taken about five minutes to discuss the novel coronavirus that had appeared in Wuhan, China. But within weeks, the virus essentially became the sole agenda item. It was in late March that he saw his first confirmed COVID patient.

“Sometimes, I just need to go home, decompress and do Cosmic Kids Yoga with my daughter. That can really help a lot.”

Dr. Jay Sellers '05, infectious disease specialist

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I hope all this of this personal protective equipment (PPE) is on correctly and it will hold up because this is the real deal. I wasn't sure how sick the patient was going to be, if they were going to be coughing a lot, or how much I was going to be exposed to the virus,” he said. “But then as the weeks progressed, I got more comfortable with the personal protective equipment and got more confident.”

When he removes his PPE, literally his every move is meticulously watched by a hospital staff member and compared to guidelines designed to prevent contaminating the wearer. As it is in surgery, one false move could cost a life — his own, others, or both.

man in medical mask

“The sequential order is very helpful, and we also have, for lack of a better term, a ‘spotter’ who will help you don and doff the equipment. The person will tell you, ‘Okay, now take off your gown. Now take off your goggles. Now take your gloves off with this hand.’ The spotters do a great job. They’ve even said, ‘Wait. You just contaminated yourself right there with your left hand, so you need to wash again.’”

He remembers an uptick in cases in nearby Raleigh in mid-April. It seemed that he spent all day going from one set of PPEs into the next. His group saw 10 new COVID patients, and he personally saw five of them.

“I remember just putting all the PPE on in the emergency room and thinking, ‘This a historic thing that we're involved in, and it's going to change the way that we practice medicine and how any of us interacts with each other. That was a crazy time suiting up for five different patients in five hours.”

Especially after those days, his daughters’ innocence and sweetness are just the right medicine. “Sometimes, I just need to go home, decompress and do Cosmic Kids Yoga with my daughter. That can really help a lot.”

And for two children growing up during a global pandemic, that’s what will have to count as a playdate for now. When the door opens at the end of the day, at least the door to the shower, what emerges isn’t a front-line hero, but a dad and sometimes yoga partner.