What I Learned From My Kids During the Pandemic

Giancarlo Toledanes, DO


September 17, 2021

Last week while playing video games with my 6-year-old son, he asked me, “When is COVID going to be over?” Calmly, I put my controller down and weighed the potential consequences of my response. Answer too optimistically and future disappointment may result. Answer too bluntly and it may amplify any fear or hopelessness. Looking back on past interactions with my children, I learned that they have been my greatest teachers. I have found those lessons to be invaluable in my growth as both parent and pediatrician.

Children Listen

During the initial months of the pandemic, the care of COVID patients was under the direction of our intensivists. As the pandemic wore on and the influx of COVID patient admissions increased, our hospitalist section was asked to help manage the less severe patients.

Home routines were quickly developed to prevent the potential spread of infection, including undressing in the garage and taking my scrubs directly to the washer to showering before playing with my children. When my son asked me why I seemed to avoid him when I came home I answered, “I am taking care of kids who are sick with a virus that is making them feel bad and I do not want you to get it from my clothes.” This answer seemed to suffice, and I went about the rest of my routine.

The following day I came home after work and was just about to start my post-work routine when my 2-year-old daughter ran to me eager for a hug. My son hurried to her side and stated in no uncertain terms, “Don’t touch dad right now because he might have the sickness.” Startled by his candor and hoping to circumvent a tantrum for refusing a hug, I declared, “I am not sick, and I will be cleaning myself so that I can give bigger, better hugs later.” Despite my concerns that my children do not listen to me, my son’s insight proved otherwise. He may not have understood completely, but I learned that he is always listening.

In pediatrics, it is all too easy to focus solely on the parents’ concerns. A running opinion in some pediatric circles is that we treat the parents as much or even more than we treat the children. However, if we truly spend the time listening to children, we realize that their unique understanding of the world and their health can be an asset in their care. In some instances, asking children what they think may be going on can elicit responses that can help aid in diagnosis or recovery.

A Small Win Is Still a Win

As the pandemic wore on, we decided to homeschool our son for the first semester of kindergarten. My wife and I were thrust into the additional role of educator along with our everyday responsibilities. A particularly difficult task for my son was recognizing sight words, which included words such as: the, me, to, bed, and dad. Bed and dad were especially challenging given the easily reversed letters of “b” and “d”. After 3 days he was able to read many of the other words but still had some difficulty with the words containing “b” and “d”. There were times that he and I came to head because of frustration. However, the act of repetition paid off and he mastered most of the sight words and over time he finally grasped ‘b’ and ‘d’ containing words. It was here that I learned about small wins. With each repetition he added mastery to an additional sight word. We celebrated the process and learned to embrace the small wins.

In medicine, we are often engrossed in the clinical outcomes, and we forget about the small wins. The COVID pandemic has taken a toll on all of us and the task of caring for patients has overwhelmed many. The resulting compassion fatigue is real and attempts to undermine the humanity that motivated many of us to serve.

To mitigate this, let us acknowledge the small wins. Let us acknowledge when we reach out to one or two families to vaccinate and they accept. Let us acknowledge the lifestyle changes one or two of our patients have decided to pursue to improve their health. These small wins may not result in any statistically significant changes to the world, but it may help us remain motivated to keep going.

There Can Never Be Too Much Hope

My son looked at me intently awaiting my response to his question, “When is COVID going to be over?” Calmly and purposefully, I answered, “I don’t know, but there are plenty of scientists, doctors, and nurses that are working very hard to make sure it ends as quickly and safely as possible.” Further, I reassured him, “Until then, your mom and I will keep you and your sisters safe, and you will keep your sisters safe by wearing your mask at school and washing your hands when you get home.”

Many may find my response naïve. I contend that perhaps having rose-colored glasses is what we need right now. As Martin Luther King Jr. states, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” It is this hope that I try to bring each time to my patients and their families. Despite all that we have lost in this pandemic, we have also much to gain if we maintain hope. I waited, bated breath for my son’s reaction to my reply to his query. His answer held more insight than any I could have offered.

“OK dad, it’s just you know COVID is boring.”

I smiled, nodding my head in agreement.

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About Dr. Giancarlo Toledanes
Giancarlo Toledanes, DO, is an assistant professor of pediatrics and a pediatric hospitalist at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. His professional interests include quality improvement, health equity, faculty development, and social psychology. When he is not in the hospital, he is a cook and a handyman to his wife, an amateur LEGO builder to his son, an aspiring unicorn to his daughter, and a walking burp cloth to his baby daughter. Connect with him on Twitter: @ToledanesGian


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