Whitney and Cary Strosnider, 27 and 30 respectively, live and work in Richmond, Virginia. The married couple didn't meet on the job, but they're both working on the frontlines within VCU Health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Believe it or not, the risk factor associated with my line of work in the hospital hasn't really changed too much during the novel coronavirus pandemic — I'm usually exposing myself to potentially dangerous pathogens and viruses on a daily basis. I'm a medical technologist at VCU Health in Richmond, Virginia, where I work in a laboratory processing the samples that my colleagues on the floor are collecting from patients. Before, I'd spend my days coordinating routine blood-drawn tests, from lipid panels to thyroid tests, and scanning samples for things like influenza. I come into contact with hundreds of patient samples that are potentially infectious in their own way. These days, however, I'm not as frenzied or as slammed as others in my hospital, despite an overwhelming sense of urgency that pervades the air.
There's a significant drop in the volume of patient samples and test orders I'm processing every day — but almost all of my tasks involve COVID-19 test kits or related plasma-rich samples on the hunt for a cure. When doctors and nurses test patients for COVID-19, these swabs come directly to my lab. At the onset of the pandemic, I was mostly arranging for these test kits to be processed in other labs across the state, or sending urgent cases to another lab a few floors below me. Then, my lab transitioned to work on isolating important serums from blood samples, as well as extracting other blood materials from patient's samples. Once the medical community learned that antibodies might be harvested from donors' blood, we then were approached by Virginia's state-run department of health to help run antibody testing for Virginia residents. I'm also working on some preliminary tests on early forms of COVID-19 medicinal treatment, to ensure patients won't have adverse side effects down the road.
In the end, however, this might all pale in comparison to the healthcare workers who are actually face-to-face with patients in need of dire assistance — including my husband, Cary. He's a touch older than me at 30 years old (I'm 27 myself), but we both started working in the healthcare field around the same time, after I first met him when I was a freshman in college.
Unlike my role in the lab, his work as a flight paramedic didn't always put him at high risk of contracting viral diseases. That's changed now, and he's airlifting potentially infected people who are in dire need of urgent medical care to the same hospital I'm also working in, putting him at a much higher risk than I am. He never knows if the patient he's helping into his helicopter is sick with COVID-19 for sure, but he's wearing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns, gloves, and face masks, in addition to flight suits and helmets.
We're both isolating ourselves from family, friends, and anyone outside of our group of colleagues — and even though I'm worried about Cary, I can't help but feel like our commitment to our work is exactly what brought us together in the first place.
I like to joke that medical emergencies have always been a part of our relationship. Cary and I first met while we were at Virginia Tech, where we also attended the same church services, too. I was a freshman at the time, and he was wrapping up his accounting degree as a senior, but it never brought him the same passion he had while volunteering as an EMT in high school. Our first date was as unorthodox as you could get; Cary was actually my brother's friend first, so I didn't even know he asked me on a real date until my brother informed me Cary had asked him for permission to do so. And then the date didn't even actually happen because Cary ended up in the emergency room that night — go figure.
Cary worked his way up to becoming a paramedic while I continued my studies, first working as a 911 first-responder as well as hospital transport for clinical patients in his area. But his real dream was always to move from regular emergency response to a specialized response, to join a specialized flight paramedic squad responsible for dire cases across the state. He's doing many of the same tasks he was doing in ambulances before, but now it's thousands of feet up in the air in the back of a helicopter. After the first two years of our marriage, he actually landed a coveted spot on a flight squad in Richmond, and we both found our own calling in the city.
Despite just how different our roles on the frontline actually are, we're both working on very small, specialized teams, and I've taken just as many preventative precautions as Cary's flight team has since the pandemic began. Because I'm analyzing highly infectious samples every single day, we are taking new precautions with respiratory samples. I'm used to a lab coat and gloves, but I'm also utilizing face masks and shields more than ever before — and we've upped our sterilization routine in the lab to be completed every four hours instead of the standard eight.
But PPE isn't enough to keep us safe from potentially infectious COVID-19 aerosols being released in the air around us. We're only opening those samples in a biological safety cabinet, which looks exactly like what you'd think it does; a big sealed-off glass box with a vent attached, where we can only use our hands to work. The hood pulls any infectious air away from the work space, just so that it doesn't come back up into our faces. This space is essential for processing COVID-19 tests, but it's just one of the many tools we're using in the lab as the race for a new form of treatment goes on. We've heard that some of the preliminary drugs being used to treat COVID-19 patients may actually impact a certain enzyme that is naturally produced by our bodies — glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, to be exact. The test my lab is currently working on is making sure any drugs used to treat COVID-19 aren't impacting this enzyme, which could produce adverse side effects that could be detrimental to patients.
My team and I need more than a biological safety cabinet to keep steady in our laboratory. Understandably, everyone working in the hospital all has a lot to worry about right now — I'm not the only one with family in direct danger, after all. The hospital has instituted a new health check that has nothing to do with taking temperatures or asking us to sanitize our hands and belongings. When we come into work every morning, we flash a thumbs-up sign to hospital personnel if we are healthy and ready to work — mostly, though, it's a sign that we're mentally sound to come in for another day of a new reality. In addition to any physical concerns, if we're not feeling well emotionally, our managers have told us they'll give us the time off that we need. I haven't taken any time just yet, but I might if I need to, if something happens down the line. For my colleagues outside of the laboratory, on the other hand, flashing that thumbs up might be harder than ever.
To say that nurses are doing a fantastic job is a gross understatement, as the challenges they face are tremendous. Patients in my hospital can't have any visitors right now, even if they are being treated for an emergency, non-COVID-related issue. There are only a few very specific exceptions to that rule, as a patient would have to be really bad off to have a limited visit right now. But it feels like every patient is indeed really suffering, right? So nurses have stepped up to do everything they can to combat that hopeless feeling of you being separated from all of your loved ones. That's in addition to pulling up their sleeves to do everything they can to minimize symptoms, despite the fact that we don't really have a solid form of treatment just yet.
The hospital has since installed a few phones on floors that patients can use, but at first, I heard our nurses were the ones to use their own personal devices so patients can FaceTime with their families, or call them when they really need to. I don't even think they questioned it at first; they simply made the connections happen that needed to, crucial moments for a family that can't come in and see their loved ones. Those stories were really inspiring to me.
Even though I'm not out on the floor, I can tell you that everyone who is taking care of these patients directly has stepped up in ways that people couldn't even imagine. The sheer impossibility of logistics in a hospital right now could easily overrun any one of us; gone are the days of order and process, as most things are sped up due to the urgent state of someone's health. These caregivers have been so patient with me, and with everyone in the lab. Even though mistakes have been made — last week, a sample was misplaced, for example, which caused a massive delay — they're very patient with us and the communication is so inspiring. No one is complaining.
Like these nurses and others I work with, Cary has also said nothing of the new dangers associated with his job. Some of his colleagues have expressed concerns about their own safety being around potentially infectious patients in the tiny cab of their helicopter — but Cary has been putting his life on the line as a paramedic for as long as I've known him. Nothing has changed for either of us, except that this pandemic has made us stronger in our faith, and reaffirmed how much we love and cherish each other.
Of course, there are days that Cary and I both feel stressed and anxious about how things will turn out. We're doing everything we can to keep all of our loved ones safe, but is there a chance one of us could be impacted in the future? And what about all the months ahead, after initial bouts of social distancing? Lots of people have concerns about Virginia's governor instituting stay-at-home orders through June 10, and others are concerned that it won't be long enough. I see the validity in both sides. It's most important to protect the population that's most at risk, and from what I've seen, it's typically the elderly population. But I also do think that we need to transition into a more sustainable way of life for everyone in the state. As we move past the initial shock of the pandemic unfolding, and as laboratories like mine continue to work on finding the next steps of better treatment or a possible vaccine, I hope the focus will be on how long-term care facilities will rethink how they work in the future, and all of the at-risk population, really. I think we can't just jump back to normal.
Whatever comes our way, I know Cary and I will work through it. It might sound crazy for some, but this has been a time of renewal and rejuvenation for our marriage. We’ve both been working really long days, and sometimes I’m not home until 11:30 p.m. But when we’re home together, there are no distractions. Before this all happened, it was easy for my work schedule to clash with my personal life — some weeks, it truly felt like we were just ships in the night passing by each other. But this crisis has inexplicably allowed us to spend more time together at home instead of running from one activity to the next.
My two focuses in life are to love God and love the people around me. I chose a career in the medical field so I would have the opportunity to serve hundreds of people on a daily basis. And I'm grateful that I still have the opportunity to do so. I know that this pandemic has impacted so many people's careers and livelihoods, their dreams, too. I used to resent the weekends and second shift hours that I work. Now, when so many have lost their jobs and have had tragedy impact their own families, I can't help but feel grateful for how stable my life is at the moment in spite of it all. I hope others can find their own sense of stability to focus on, too.
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