Dr. Khalilah Gates, 43
Title: Pulmonary and critical care physician, Northwestern Memorial Hospital; assistant professor and assistant dean of medical education, Feinberg School of Medicine
Dr. Michelle Prickett, 45
Title: Pulmonary and critical care physician, Northwestern Memorial Hospital; associate professor and medical director of respiratory care, Feinberg School of Medicine
During the height of the pandemic, Gates and Prickett, longtime close friends, leaned on each other for support. Before the pandemic, Gates and Prickett would serve on the intensive care unit about one week per month, which changed dramatically amid COVID-19. Their friendship helped them navigate emotionally challenging situations.
As told to Ruben Castaneda, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did your friendship help you get through the worst of COVID-19?
Prickett: A few months into the pandemic we had a horribly sick person transfer to our intensive care unit. This patient had severe multi-systemic inflammatory disorder. This is a rare complication of COVID in adults. It was something we weren’t familiar with, though we’d read about it. It was a terrible day.
We were about to transport the patient to another room. I gowned up in all the personal protective equipment to accompany the patient for the transport, which I don’t usually do, but the severity of the illness necessitated my involvement. Earlier that day Khalilah texted me, asking if I was OK and if I needed anything. I shared that my day was not going well. We took the patient into the other room and Khalilah shows up with a balloon of all things.
Gates: It was clear from Michelle’s texts things weren’t going well. On the way home, I stopped at Walgreen’s — there’s one inside the hospital. I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I saw a balloon, I think it said ‘Thank you.’ I grabbed it, went back to the ICU and showed it to her through the window.
Prickett: It lightened the mood of a very bad day.
Gates: Since the start of the pandemic, I was working in the ICU every other week, seven straight days each round. We have a young daughter at home, so we were trying to keep everything as balanced as possible. It was go-go-go.
About eight months after I lost my mother-in-law last July, I hit my breaking point. I was scheduled for a week of working nights in March of 2021. The idea of being away from my daughter while my husband was still grieving — it felt like I was sacrificing the well-being of my family. I felt like ‘I just can’t do this.’ I was sitting at my desk, sobbing. I’m usually the tough girl. I called Michelle to process the situation. She’s like, ‘Girl, stop crying. We’ll make the switch. I’ll take the night shifts, you take some of my days.’ So now I’m crying because my friend is willing to help me.
Prickett: Both of us are city kids, we’re both from Chicago. Nothing gets us down. So when I heard her bawling, I was like, ‘Get it together. You’ve been through so much. Night shifts? I’ll take those. We will find a way, simmer down.’
Gates: It all worked out and I cried for no reason; the month I was scheduled for night duty, night coverage was cancelled due to the decrease in COVID numbers.
Prickett: You took my day shifts and I was grateful and never looked back.
Gates: We all have our breaking points. That was mine.
Prickett: The biggest source of stress for me was my family. My husband is very supportive. But trying to explain quarantine to a 6-year-old is very difficult. ‘Why can’t mommy hug me? Why can’t she tuck me in?’ At work, I was having to manage the emotions of trying to make sure I was doing the right thing, keeping our staff safe, figuring out the right way to run a ventilator, calculating the risk to my staff when we’re doing necessary procedures, like intubations.
You have your game face on at work and coming home, you have to put on your happy face. You don’t want to let your kids see your fears and struggles. You don’t get to stop being a mom because you’re dealing with a deadly pandemic. I could text Khalilah at all hours knowing my kids would never hear me. I texted her probably every day, sharing what I’m thinking and what I’m worried about. You know a fellow physician is going to understand your experience.
Gates: We are very similar in how we interact with the world. We are the protectors, we want to make sure everyone else is OK, whether it’s our families or our patients. It’s part of why we are such good friends. I think we both understood the responsibility we had to put on our big girl pants and reassure everyone that everything is going to be all right. I couldn’t show fear to my family either. Michelle served as a source of reassurance: ‘You know where I am.’ We can decompress and we don’t have to say much.
Michelle and I have known each other since 2007. We were fellows together and our friendship has transitioned and blossomed over that time. You develop relationships and friendships around medicine. We’ve been with each other through so many events — weddings, births, deaths. People can conceptualize the difficulty of working on the front lines of the pandemic, but it takes a fellow health care worker to understand the emotions; what we are experiencing as humans.
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A Strong Bond: Friendship Helped These Two Doctors Cope With the Pandemic originally appeared on usnews.com