Physician Couples Draft Wills, Face Tough Questions Amid COVID-19

Alicia Gallegos

March 30, 2020

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

UPDATED March 31, 2020 // Editor's note: Due to incorrect information provided, the hospital where Dr. Sathya's wife works was misidentified. We have removed the name of that hospital. The story does not include his wife's employer, because Dr. Sathya did not have permission to disclose her workplace and she wishes to remain anonymous.

Not long ago, weekends for Cornelia Griggs, MD, meant making trips to the grocery store, chasing after two active toddlers, and eating brunch with her husband after a busy work week. But life has changed dramatically for the family since the spread of COVID-19. On a recent weekend, Dr. Griggs and her husband, Robert Goldstone, MD, spent their days off drafting a will.

"We're both doctors, and we know that health care workers have an increased risk of contracting COVID," said Dr. Griggs, a pediatric surgery fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. "It felt like the responsible thing to do: Have a will in place to make sure our wishes are clear about who would manage our property and assets, and who would take care of our kids — God forbid."

Drs Cornelia Griggs and Robert Goldstone

Outlining their final wishes is among many difficult decisions the doctors, both 36, have been forced to make in recent weeks. Dr. Goldstone, a general surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is no longer returning to New York during his time off, said Dr. Griggs, who has had known COVID-19 exposures. The couple's children, aged 4 and almost 2, are temporarily living with their grandparents in Connecticut to decrease their exposure risk.

"I felt like it was safer for all of them to be there while I was going back and forth from the hospital," Dr. Griggs said. "My husband is in Boston. The kids are in Connecticut and I'm in New York. That inherently is hard because our whole family is split up. I don't know when it will be safe for me to see them again."

Health professional couples across the country are facing similar challenges as they navigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 at work, while trying to protect their families at home. From childcare dilemmas to quarantine quandaries to end-of-life considerations, partners who work in health care are confronting tough questions as the pandemic continues.

The biggest challenge is the uncertainty, says Angela Weyand, MD, an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based pediatric hematologist/oncologist who shares two young daughters with husband Ted Claflin, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. Dr. Weyand said she and her husband are primarily working remotely now, but she knows that one or both could be deployed to the hospital to help care for patients, if the need arises. Nearby Detroit has been labeled a coronavirus "hot spot" by the U.S. Surgeon General.

"Right now, I think our biggest fear is spreading coronavirus to those we love, especially those in higher risk groups," she said. "At the same time, we are also concerned about our own health and our future ability to be there for our children, a fear that, thankfully, neither one of us has ever had to face before. We are trying to take things one day at a time, acknowledging all that we have to be grateful for, and also learning to accept that many things right now are outside of our control."

Dr. Weyand, 38, and her husband, 40, finalized their wills in March.

"We have been working on them for quite some time, but before now, there has never been any urgency," Dr. Weyand said. "Hearing about the high rate of infection in health care workers and the increasing number of deaths in young healthy people made us realize that this should be a priority."

Dallas internist Bethany Agusala, MD, 36, and her husband, Kartik Agusala, MD, 41, a cardiologist, recently spent time engaged in the same activity. The couple, who work for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, have two children, aged 2 and 4.

"The chances are hopefully small that something bad would happen to either one of us, but it just seemed like a good time to get [a will] in place," Dr. Bethany Agusala said in an interview. "It's never an easy thing to think about. I think this crisis has really changed a lot of people's priorities, and the things that didn't seem important before are now really important and vice versa."

Pediatric surgeon Chethan Sathya, MD, 34, and his wife, 31, a physician assistant, have vastly altered their home routine to prevent the risk of exposure to their 16-month-old daughter. Dr. Sathya works for the Northwell Health System in New York, which has hundreds of hospitalized patients with COVID-19, Dr. Sathya said in an interview. He did not want to disclose his wife's name or institution, but said she works in a COVID-19 unit at a New York hospital.

When his wife returns home, she removes all of her clothes and places them in a bag, showers, and then isolates herself in the bedroom. Dr. Sathya brings his wife meals and then remains in a different room with their baby.

"It's only been a few days," he said. "We're going to decide: Does she just stay in one room at all times or when she doesn't work for a few days then after 1 day, can she come out? Should she get a hotel room elsewhere? These are the considerations."

They employ an older nanny whom they also worry about, and with whom they try to limit contact, said Dr. Sathya, who practices at Cohen Children's Medical Center. In a matter of weeks, Dr. Sathya anticipates he will be called upon to assist in some form with the COVID crisis.

"We haven't figured that out. I'm not sure what we'll do," he said. "There is no perfect solution. You have to adapt. It's very difficult to do so when you're living in a condo in New York."

For Dr. Griggs, life is much quieter at home without her husband and two "laughing, wiggly," toddlers. Weekends are now defined by resting, video calls with her family, and exercising, when it's safe, said Dr. Griggs, who recently penned a New York Times opinion piece about the pandemic and is also active on social media regarding personal protective equipment. She calls her husband her "rock" who never fails to put a smile on her face when they chat from across the miles. Her advice for other health care couples is to take it "one day at a time."

"Don't try to make plans weeks in advance or let your mind go to a dark place," she said. "It's so easy to feel overwhelmed. The only way to get through this is to focus on surviving each day."

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