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Our Whole Family Got COVID—Here’s How We’re Coping

family covid coping family covid coping
courtesy Jessica Gilmartin

In coming weeks, we’ll be sharing stories of moms dealing with COVID — whether it be in their homes, at work, or as caregivers for parents and other family members. This week, I was introduced (virtually) to Jessica Gilmartin who is recovering from the virus along with her husband and two teenage children in the Boston area, where they live. At one point, they all had the virus at the same time. I connected with Jessica to hear her story, learn how she and her family are coping with this experience, and share her reflections — in the spirit of information-sharing and support.

MH: It’s hard to imagine what your family has been through. As a fellow mom, I have so many questions, but the biggest is how it turned out that your 15-year-old daughter was in charge of three sick, COVID positive people. 

I was the first in the family to get sick. A lot of people assume it was via my husband since he’s a physician. But our timeline doesn’t back that up. I’m convinced I got the virus from a trip to the grocery — the only one I made in the latter half of March — since the store was a zoo and no one was in masks or respecting distances. Three nights later I went to bed and didn’t sleep for longer than 25 minutes at a time because of body aches and a fever. The next day I was tested; we needed results quickly because my husband was scheduled to work in the ICU, so they were kind enough to expedite my results. “COVID +.”  A few days later, my 16-year old son was sick. The real chaos began a few days after that when my husband went down. So, yeah, my 15-year-old daughter was the last one standing.

How did she (and you) manage during that time? 

She did a spectacular job while very scared. She cooked, cleaned, took care of the dog and managed her virtual school and extracurricular activities. We started using FaceTime when I went into isolation as a way to actually see one another and ease the fear. Once my daughter was on her own, FaceTime was a critical piece of keeping some calm, both for me and for her. I could make sure she was OK, keep her company while she was cooking, and just generally advise her and answer her questions. I tried to FaceTime with her so much that I think she was grateful that some years ago I’d restricted FaceTime minutes on her phone!

I can honestly say the only real issue was the cleaning. We can laugh about it now, sort of, but it was a point of contention. In my daughter’s defense, I have met vanishingly few 15-year-olds who have an attention to detail when it comes to cleaning, never mind pandemic-style cleaning. Thankfully, my kids have spent many hours with me in the kitchen and can cook. Plus, my family and friends were absolutely amazing — particularly my Mom — about making meals and dropping them off at the front door.

My daughter’s shoulders actually came down and she relaxed a bit once she finally got sick, too. By then I was well enough that I was able to take over, she was able to be a kid again, and she could actually see me in person and trust that I was OK. On Sunday, April 12, I made Easter dinner and was truly grateful that although we were all sick, we were together.

The advice of all of our doctors was that even once we were all COVID positive, we should still stay isolated from one another at home. At a certain point we couldn’t maintain that 100%, so we made some family rules about distance and masks. There is great hope that there is some protection from antibodies but this is not definitely established. I haven’t been able to really hug my children or give my husband a kiss in a really long time.

MH: What did the virus look like for your teens? How did they experience it?

The kids had many of the same symptoms my husband and I had, but slightly milder. They both recovered faster than us. 28 days later and my husband and I are still working towards full recovery. I had pretty much all the most common symptoms and the rest of the family had some combination of the majority of them.

MH: As a mom, what were your biggest fears and concerns?

JG: The idea that one of the kids would need to go to the hospital and we would not be allowed to be with them because we were COVID positive kept me up at night.

And, truthfully, there were a couple of nights where my chest hurt so much and my resting heart rate was high enough that I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack in my sleep. With this virus there is so much uncertainty about how it will affect each person individually, coupled with the unending news reports of the horrors of this illness; you just have to acknowledge the fear. I do remember one night, in the early days of being sick, repeatedly reminding myself that for the vast majority of people this is just a “normal” virus. Although, I will say, I have never experienced a virus like this.

I also have the daily fears that lots of moms, COVID or not, are feeling now. The kids were in the driveway playing basketball the other day — now that they’re doing better — and I said to them, “Don’t get hurt, we can’t go into the hospital with you!” Seriously, what do we do if someone needs to go in? I still don’t have the answers so I just worry.

Then there’s wondering how this time will impact our kids’ social and emotional well-being in the long run. How will they cope with the loss of so many rites of passage? There are some real disappointments and lost occasions in our kids’ lives right now. I worry about how to acknowledge that and give them the opportunity to grieve these losses.

MH: What are some of the takeaways you’d share with other parents? 

JG: First of all I’ve been grateful that my teenagers are old enough to understand what’s happening and can participate in the family’s management of a COVID positive household. It would have been more complex if our kids had been younger.

Secondly, I’d say if younger kids have a familiarity with the kitchen, that can help. Putting things they need at arm’s reach in the pantry and refrigerator, having paper products like plates, cups and cutlery will help. Teach them how to make easy things like PB&J or any cheese and deli meat sandwich. Have things that are easy to grab, like pre-cut veggies and fruit and hummus, guacamole, or other dip. Get them a kid’s chef knife that they can use safely. This doesn’t apply as much to very young kids, but it will take a lot of pressure off of parents to know that their elementary school or middle school age kids can get their own breakfast and lunch. Teach them to load the dishwasher and take out the trash. The other thing I would say, especially for parents of younger kids, is to teach them to use dish soap and warm water to clean surfaces. It will reduce anxiety about using cleaning products with dangerous chemicals. If kids are older, leave some cleaning products in the bathroom so everyone can clean after they use it.

Also, make some broad plans in advance so that if someone in the family gets sick, there’s an isolation plan in place. It’s much easier than trying to figure it all out while you’re managing being sick, or taking care of a sick spouse or child, or trying to figure out testing.

My daughter let her teachers know what was going on in our household and the school did an amazing job of reaching out to her directly and offering lots of support. We were lucky enough to have a phenomenal network of family and friends supporting us but that is not true for everyone, so I would definitely lean on the school system.

I guess one big takeaway is that we got lots of advice from the medical community that was good in theory and appropriate medical advice, but advice that simply might not work for a family with kids. Especially if you have limited space. Not everyone has the space in their home for one person to isolate, let alone four. Work with the space you have and use masks. I’m a huge fan of Lysol spray; I have cans everywhere and I spray everything after I touch it. Do the best you can, and be kind to yourself.

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Meredith Hoffa is the Managing Editor at WhatsUpMoms.com and lives in L.A. with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in the NYT, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Boston Globe Magazine and several anthologies, among other places. Send her funny videos of people falling (but not getting hurt!) at meredith@whatsupmoms.com.