“We are in dire need of hugs”
Typically, Dr. Dakkak, a family physician at Boston University, practices a mix of clinic-based family medicine and obstetrics, and works in inpatient medicine 6 weeks a year. Currently, she is leading a COVID-19 team full time at Boston Medical Center, a 300-bed safety-net hospital located on the campus of Boston University Medical Center.
COVID-19 has also shaken up her life at home.
When Dr. Dakkak volunteered to take on her new role, the first thing that came to her mind was how making the switch would affect the well-being of her 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
“I thought, ‘How do I get my children somewhere where I don’t have to worry about them?’ ” Dr. Dakkak said.
She floated the idea with her husband of flying their children out to stay with her recently retired parents, who live outside of Sacramento, Calif., until the pandemic eases up. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Am I overreacting? Is the pandemic not going to be that bad?’ because the rest of the country seemed to be in some amount of denial,” she said. “So, I called my dad, who’s a retired pediatric anesthesiologist. He’s from Egypt so he’s done crisis medicine in his time. He encouraged me to send the kids.”
On the same day that Dr. Dakkak began her first 12-hour COVID-19 shift at the hospital, her husband and children boarded a plane to California, where the kids remain in the care of her parents. Her husband returned after staying there for 2 weeks. “Every day when I’m working, I validate my decision,” she said. “When I first started, I worked 5 nights in a row, had 2 days off, and then worked 6 nights in a row. I was busy so I didn’t think about [being away from my kids], but at the same time I was grateful that I didn’t have to come home and worry about homeschooling the kids or infecting them.”
She checks in with them as she can via cell phone or FaceTime. “My son has been very honest,” Dr. Dakkak said. “He says, ‘FaceTime makes me miss you more, and I don’t like it,’ which I understand. I’ll call my mom, and if they want to talk to me, they’ll talk to me. If they don’t want to talk to me, I’m okay. This is about them being healthy and safe. I sent them a care package a few days ago with cards and some workbooks. I’m optimistic that in June I can at least see them if not bring them home.”
Dr. Dakkak describes leading a COVID-19 team as a grueling experience that challenges her medical know-how nearly every day, with seemingly ever-changing algorithms. “Our knowledge of this disease is five steps behind, and changing at lightning speed,” said Dr. Dakkak, who completed a fellowship in surgical and high-risk obstetrics. “It’s hard to balance continuing to teach evidence-based medicine for everything else in medicine [with continuing] to practice minimal and ever-changing evidence-based COVID medicine. We just don’t know enough [about the virus] yet. This is nothing like we were taught in medical school. Everyone has elevated d-dimers with COVID-19, and we don’t get CT pulmonary angiograms [CTPAs] on all of them; we wouldn’t physically be able to. Some patients have d-dimers in the thousands, and only some are stable to get CTPAs. We are also finding pulmonary embolisms. Now we’re basing our algorithm on anticoagulation due to d-dimers because sometimes you can’t always do a CTPA even if you want to. On the other hand, we have people who are coming into the hospital too late. We’ve had a few who have come in after having days of stroke symptoms. I worry about our patients at home who hesitate to come in when they really should.”
Sometimes she feels sad for the medical residents on her team because their instinct is to go in and check on each patient, “but I don’t want them to get exposed,” she said. “So, we check in by phone, or if they need a physical check-in, we minimize the check-ins; only one of us goes in. I’m more willing to put myself in the room than to put them in the room. I also feel for them because they came into medicine for the humanity of medicine – not the charting or the ordering of medicine. I also worry about the acuity and sadness they’re seeing. This is a rough introduction to medicine for them.”
When interviewed for this story in late April, Dr. Dakkak had kept track of her intubated COVID-19 patients. “Most of my patients get to go home without having been intubated, but those aren’t the ones I worry about,” she said. “I have two patients I have been watching. One of them has just been extubated and I’m still worried about him, but I’m hoping he’s going to be fine. The other one is the first pregnant woman we intubated. She is now extubated, doing really well, and went home. Her fetus is doing well, never had any issues while she was intubated. Those cases make me happy. They were both under the age of 35. It is nice to follow those intubations and find that the majority are doing okay.”
The first patient she had cared for who died was a young man “who was always in good spirits,” she recalled. “We called his brother right before intubating him. After intubation, his oxygen saturation didn’t jump up, which made me worry a bit.” About a week later, the young man died. “I kept thinking, ‘We intubated him when he was still comfortable talking. Should I have put it off and had him call more people to say goodbye? Should I have known that he wasn’t going to wake up?’ ” said Dr. Dakkak, who is also women’s health director at Manet Community Health Centers. “A lot of us have worked on our end-of-life discussions in the past month, just being able to tell somebody, ‘This might be your last time to call family. Call family and talk to whoever you want.’ Guilt isn’t the right word, but it’s unsettling if I’m the last person a patient talks to. I feel that, if that’s the case, then I didn’t do a good enough job trying to get them to their family or friends. If I am worried about a patient’s clinical status declining, I tell families now, when I call them, ‘I hope I’m wrong; I hope they don’t need to be intubated, but I think this is the time to talk.’ ”
To keep herself grounded during off hours, Dr. Dakkak spends time resting, checking in with her family, journaling “to get a lot of feelings out,” gardening, hiking, and joining Zoom chats with friends. Once recentered, she draws from a sense of obligation to others as she prepares for her next shift caring for COVID-19 patients.
“I have a lot of love for the world that I get to expend by doing this hard work,” she said. “I love humanity and I love humanity in times of crisis. The interactions I have with patients and their families are still central to why I do this work. I love my medical teams, and I would never want to let them down. It is nice to feel the sense of teamwork across the hospital. The nurses that I sit with and experience this with are amazing. I keep saying that the only thing I want to do when this pandemic is over is hug everyone. I think we are in dire need of hugs.”