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Joining the front lines

Jessica Summerfield

I have not seen my family in 42 days. I am happily married with beautiful twin seven year-old girls.

We were in Orlando and about to embark on our Disney World adventure until COVID-19 cancelled those plans. I made the difficult but obvious decision to leave my family and come home to join the front lines in our battle against COVID-19. My husband and I decided it would be best for them to remain apart from me for the time being since I would be at great risk of contracting the virus. I miss them terribly.

I am a family physician and hospitalist in Windsor. My first day home I worked in the COVID-19 Assessment Centre and then returned to my office to see patients for essential visits, vaccinations, and unwell urgent patients. Our office adapted quickly to phoning patients for virtual visits and we reorganized the office and staff to minimize exposure. I am currently on a three week stretch of call for the hospital on the COVID unit.

I am juggling quite a few emotions through COVID-19. As a mother, I feel guilty about abandoning my children for work for an unknown length of time. Despite taking extreme precautions, I am deeply concerned about contracting COVID-19. Every shift I walk out of the hospital wondering if I’ve been infected. Each day is filled with an unshakable anxiety; is today the day I get a flood of COVID-19 admissions and become completely overwhelmed? I worry about my colleagues getting sick and how difficult it would be not only to see them unwell but also having the responsibility of their care. These are my friends; they are not supposed to be my patients. In contrast, all of these emotions are quickly outweighed by an overwhelming need to provide patient care. I am ignited with ideas to guide patients through their illness and actively prepare our hospitals to optimize patient care. I feel an immense amount of pride in my contribution to the hospital and community.

I have never felt so proud to be a physician as I do now. I have seen my colleagues come together in a way I’ve never seen before.  My colleagues have dedicated innumerable hours planning and developing protocols to support our community and hospital through COVID-19. They attend daily virtual meetings across the region and province to ensure our approaches are up to date and backed by the best evidence available. They have seemlessly adapted their practices to a new virtual world and selflessly expanded their call schedules in preparation for the inevitable surge of patients. They have done all of this work without a question of compensation. To this date I have not heard a single physician complain.

With all of this said, there is another emotion I cannot seem to shake. Disappointment. I am tremendously disappointed in our government for how they are treating the physicians of Ontario. At a time when we have risen to the challenge and have more public support than ever, why is the government undervaluing our profession so greatly? At a time when we are working harder than we’ve ever worked before, under more pressure and stress than ever before, why must we endure the added stress of worrying how we will pay bills to keep our practices open? Some fellow family physicians in the community are being forced to close their offices. Many of my specialist colleagues are in even dire straights with cancellations of non-essential surgeries and consultations. We feel the same pressure of any small business in terms of employing staff and paying overhead yet this fact is completely ignored by our government. This quite simply is wrong.

We are called to provide care. We have always, and will always, put patients first. It’s time for the government to stop taking advantage of that. I worry how long my colleagues, and myself, can keep this infrastructure afloat without some acknowledgement from government. I’ve never felt so much love and support from my community, my hospital organization, staff, friends, and family. I can only hope the government joins in supporting us as well. Without government support the risk of system collapse is not only possible but also inevitable.

Dr. Jessica Summerfield
Family Medicine and Hospitalist