Gabrielle Dawn Luna sees her father in every patient she treats.
As an emergency room nurse in the same hospital where her father lay dying of Covid last March, Ms. Luna knows firsthand what it’s like for a family to hang on to every new piece of information. She’s become acutely aware of the need to take extra time in explaining developments to a patient’s relatives who are often desperate for updates.
And Ms. Luna has been willing to share her personal loss if it helps, as she did recently with a patient whose husband died. But she has also learned to withhold it to respect each person’s distinct grief, as she did when a colleague’s father also succumbed to the disease.
It’s challenging, she said, to allow herself to grieve enough to help patients without feeling overwhelmed herself.
“Sometimes I think that’s too big a responsibility,” she said. “But that’s the job that I signed up for, right?”
Tom Omaña Luna, was also an emergency nurse and was proud when Ms. Luna joined him in the field. When he died on April 9, Ms. Luna, who also had mild symptoms of Covid-19, took about a week off work. Her mother, a nurse at a long-term-care facility, spent about six weeks at home afterward.
“She didn’t want me to go back to work for fear that something would happen to me, too,” Ms. Luna said. “But I had to go back. They needed me.”
When her hospital in Teaneck, N.J. swelled with virus patients, she struggled with stress, burnout and a nagging fear that left her grief an open wound: “Did I give it to him? I don’t want to think about that, but it’s a possibility.”
Like the Lunas, many who have been treating the millions of coronavirus patients in the United States over the past year come from families defined by medicine. It is a calling passed through generations, one that binds spouses and connects siblings who are states apart.
It’s a bond that brings the succor of shared experience, but for many, the pandemic has also introduced a host of fears and stresses. Many have worried about the risks they’re taking and those their loved ones face every day, too. They worry about the unseen scars left behind.
Shawki Zuabi, spent his last days in her hospital, UCI Health in Orange County, Calif., before dying of Covid on Jan. 8. The younger Dr. Zuabi almost immediately returned to work, hoping to keep going through purpose and her colleagues’ camaraderie.
She had expected that working alongside the people who had cared for her father would deepen her commitment to her own patients, and to some extent it has. But mainly, she came to realize how important it is to balance that taxing emotional availability with her own well-being.
“I try to always be as empathetic and compassionate as I can,” Dr. Zuabi said. “There’s a part of you that maybe as a survival mechanism has to build a wall because to feel that all the time, I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
Work is filled with reminders. When she saw a patient’s fingertips, she recalled how her colleagues had also pricked her father’s to check insulin levels.