How 3 Physician Couples Are Weathering the Pandemic

Renée Bacher

December 17, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

When COVID-19 exploded into New York City hospitals last spring, Sonia Gidwani, MD, a 54-year-old pediatrician in private practice on the Upper West Side, was very worried her pulmonologist husband, Umesh Gidwani, MD, 59, who runs the cardiac critical care unit at Mount Sinai, wouldn't have enough personal protective equipment (PPE). In a moment of panic, she called her adult son, who was jogging in Central Park, and told him she'd heard there were still N95s at a store on 85th and Broadway.

"He literally ran from Central Park to the store and bought 20," she said.

Such is the concern of a doctor married to a doctor in a pandemic. According to a recent American Medical Association survey of more than 15,000 physicians, 25% of female doctors are married to another doctor, as are 16% of male doctors. It's not easy, particularly during a pandemic in which two doctors may double the risk of bringing home SARS-CoV-2, or the one working in a hospital may choose to live in a hotel room. But some say they can't imagine being married to a "civilian," not talking shop with a partner who understands and never takes the demanding hours personally. 

These are the stories of a few of those couples and what they have endured. 

One in the COVID-19 Trenches, the Other Holding Down the Fort. 

By the end of March, Umesh's unit had become dedicated entirely to COVID-19 patients and Sonia, Umesh's wife of 30 years, was understandably worried about all the unknowns. "We didn't know enough about the disease," she said. "We just had to wing things as they came along."

Umesh quickly realized that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 somehow needed to see their families — especially before being intubated — but in-person visits were suspended. Within 2 weeks, he ensured that these patients had access to smartphones and tablets for video visits with their loved ones.

This level of caring is what first impressed Sonia when she met Umesh through a family introduction in New Jersey in 1989, after both had come to the US from India for medical residencies. They later completed fellowships in their respective specialties and had two children now in their 20s, managing with the support of Umesh's parents, who came from India to help.

Sonia and Umesh Gidwani on their wedding day.

During New York's spring wave of COVID-19, Umesh went 2 months without seeing his children or their grandparents.

While Umesh worked three 12-hour shifts and did administrative work from home for three more days each week, work was slower for Sonia. She opened her Manhattan office every other week to vaccinate healthy babies and saw patients via telemedicine occasionally, but 30% of her patients had left the city and business had fallen off.

"For me, life was much easier than for Umesh," she said, "and at some point, I even thought that I should volunteer." 

Ultimately, they decided that with Umesh so deep in the trenches, it was best not to double their risk. She recounts him saying, "'We can't both sacrifice ourselves, because what's going to happen to the family if something happens to both of us?"

Sonia covered her private practice's payroll out of pocket for 2 months until her Paycheck Protection Program loan came in and covered the next 2 months. Ultimately, she had to lay off her full-time nurse practitioner — her highest paid employee — and hire more peripheral staff instead to keep up with charting. Business is still down 10%-20%.

"It feels like we have a 2-3 year setback at this point," she said, "But I'm one of the fortunate ones who were able to stay open. I'm also fortunate Umesh has a salaried income."

As cases are rising again, Umesh is doing 15 long shifts per month and Sonia is working in the office 6 days a week and taking sick patients as walk-ins in the evenings. With new cleaning regimens stretching her schedule of patient visits, what used to be an 8-hour day of work now takes 10-11 hours.

So far, both physicians have managed to remain coronavirus-free, which they attribute to following official public health guidance on proper PPE use.

"Umesh had a negative antibody test after 3 months," Sonia said, laughing, "and he was actually a little disappointed that after all that exposure he wasn't going to get a free COVID vaccine out of all of this."  

Two Hospitalists and a Baby 

For Clayton and Nikeisha Okpara, both 33 and internists and hospitalists in Texas, one of the toughest parts in treating hundreds of patients with COVID-19 has been seeing people with few comorbidities die.

"It's like nothing I've ever experienced in my life," said Clayton.

He described one patient, a pleasant 60-year-old woman, who seemed to be doing fine but could not get off the BiPap machine without her oxygen quickly dropping. There was no weaning her down to a nasal cannula and sending her home. After several weeks she was exhausted and asked to be taken off the machine and allowed to die. "I was like, wow, you're my mom's age," Clayton said.

Clayton and Nikeisha Okpara both work as hospitalist physicians in Texas.

Until recently, both Clayton and Nikki worked the same 12-hour shifts, 7 days on and 7 days off, at the same community hospital with a nursing shortage. It's been hard to watch people die without family by their bedside, but seeing some patients improve and finally sending them home "helps with the darkness," Clayton said. And being able to vent to Nikki has been a stress reliever too. "There's nothing she has seen that I haven't, and vice versa," he said.

The couple met as first year students at Ross Medical College in Barbados. After about a year of being study buddies, they fell in love. They both matched at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley for residencies in internal medicine and married in their second year. In 2019, they welcomed daughter Chloé. 

As two hospitalists with a baby in a pandemic, the Okparas are vigilant about keeping their home free from SARS-CoV-2 and constantly disinfecting anything the baby might touch. "Nobody knows what the sequela of this will be," Nikki said. "We just know the now."

They call their nanny on the way home from work so she can bring the toddler to a part of the house where she won't come running at them before they can leave their shoes at the door, change clothing, and shower. "We don't want the baby to think we're avoiding her," Clayton said.

The Okparas welcomed daughter Chloé in 2019.

Last month, Clayton got a job at a community hospital closer to home, but he and Nikki still enjoy their four days off together. They swap massages on tough days (and when one of them loses a bet about a Googled medical fact), do chores together, and make it a priority to discuss anything that's weighing on either of them, including microaggressions at work. "It helps a lot that my wife and I are both Black," Clayton said. "We can communicate about health disparities in our communities as well as racism inside and outside of the hospital without an experience barrier between us."

After the pandemic, the Okparas are looking forward to safely resuming their end-of-shift tradition of trying a new restaurant each week. Until then, Nikki said, they're grateful they each have a career they love and gainful employment at a time when so many are unemployed.

"We just think positive and move forward," Nikki said, "helping people who can't help themselves right now."

Keeping a Private Practice Afloat in Uncertain Times

Last March, physicians Troy Pittman, MD, and Michael T. Somenek, MD, were in the process of building an outpatient plastic surgery center beside their 4-year-old private practice in Washington, DC, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

"They say, 'If you build it, they will come,' but we're thinking, 'How are they going to come in a pandemic?' " said Pittman, 45, who specializes in breast and body contouring. Somenek, 40, specializes in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Troy Pittman, left, and Michael Somenek married and went into
practice together after they met in residency.

At first, the primary concern for the doctors, who met as plastic surgery residents at Rush University Medical College in Chicago, was for their 10 employees, whom they furloughed. 

During the 6 weeks the practice was closed, they set up shop in their home, working from rooms on separate floors and using imaging software to do virtual consults. Patients would send views of their faces or breasts, which the doctors would put into a 3D model to show how a rhinoplasty or breast augmentation might look. 

At first, the doctors thought nobody would go for surgery based on mock-up images, but prospective patients really liked the consults. The doctors now routinely do virtual consults with people willing to travel to DC for surgery from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. They've resumed operating with safety protocols based on data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

The doctors, who married in 2014 and decided not to have children, put substantial time into their practice. "This practice is our kid," Pittman said. "We nurture this baby and we watch it grow."

Going into practice together made sense to them, since their subspecialties are complementary and they had operated together regularly as residents. "We learned surgery side by side, so it's like having a dance partner where you each know what the next move is," Pittman said. "It makes for much better patient care." They continue to operate together once or twice a week and consult with each other regularly.

Pittman and Somenek with their dogs Sophie and Piper.

Between long hours at work and decompressing at home watching TV with their dogs, Sophie and Piper, the surgeons spend much of their time together. Some of their friends have wondered aloud whether they ever get sick of each other. 

"Sometimes," said Pittman, laughing. "We live about a mile from work, but we each have our own car and refuse to drive together to the office. That's what keeps our marriage functional."

While their practice is fully open, they limit their social lives to seeing one friend at a time, outdoors only, in order to protect themselves, their staff, and patients from contracting COVID-19.  

"If one of us gets it, the business shuts down for 2 weeks. And that's a big deal, financially. Especially for our employees," Somenek said. "We are trying our best to stay open, be functional, and also be extremely safe."

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