People & Places

“I want to be confident” — ER doctor, mother shares personal crisis behind pandemic frontlines

Dr. Justine Amaro became an emergency room physician to save lives, but as the pandemic sweeps across the world, COVID-19 is forcing her to confront her own mortality — and weigh the cost of bestowing an uncertain future on her child.

Dr. Amaro has a 5-year old son named Jaedyn, who she has chosen to raise on her own. She says she has never had to choose between her job at the Ottawa Hospital and raising her son — until the coronavirus arrived in Canada.

Dr. Justine Amaro with her son Jaedyn

“As ER doctors, we know that we are frontline and that there are risks. Risks to exposure, to communicable diseases, and risk of violence from impaired or psychiatric patients. We know the trauma when a patient dies in your hand,” said Dr. Amaro. “But I didn’t think it would be part of my job to worry that my child may not have a parent.” 

I spoke with Dr. Amaro on Sunday, March 22, just a few hours after she found out her COVID-19 test came back negative. In the four days that she waited for the test results, Dr. Amaro was focused on finding a legal guardian for Jaedyn.

Dr. Amaro usually relies on her mother to care for her son when she’s working or ill. But Dr. Amaro’s mom is 73 years old, while her 82-year old father lives in Toronto and is on chemotherapy. Her parents are part of the group that is most susceptible to the highly contagious disease. A study of 44,000 COVID-19 patients in China found that the virus most seriously affected older people with pre-existing health conditions; 23 percent of the people who died were over the age of 70.

If she had tested positive, her young son would have been exposed to the virus, meaning his grandparents could not care for him without putting their own health at risk. As a single mom, working on the frontlines, Dr. Amaro cannot quarantine herself because there is no one else to care for her son. 

Dr. Justine Amaro and her son, Jaedyn

For the past few nights, Dr. Amaro says she has been tossing and turning, grappling with these issues in her sleep. “I have a vision of my child ending up in foster care because no one will take him.” 

That nightmare scenario was averted this past weekend, after a married couple who work with Dr. Amaro committed to becoming Jaedyn’s guardians should she become infected.

A weight has been lifted off her, now that she knows someone will be there for her child if she can’t.  But as Dr. Amaro prepares to return to work, she still seeks assurances only the Ottawa Hospital can give.

When a COVID-19 patient comes to the emergency room, doctors and nurses will wear N-95 masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves before treating the patient. After contact, all the personal protective equipment is disposed of after one use. In China and Italy, hospitals overwhelmed with patients have run out of supplies. There are stories of medical staff reusing masks, and treating patients without gloves, and doctors dying from the virus. 

“I want to be confident that as things escalate at the hospital that there will be enough personal protective equipment,” said the doctor.

Dr. Amaro has gone through the 2003 Sars outbreak, she was treating patients during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, but she didn’t have a child then. For the first time in her career she admits to being afraid — it’s not just her life on the line anymore.