Little Zahraa, who is only 15 months old, usually runs arms outstretched with excitement to greet her dad when he comes home from work. Her mom, Zeinab Sheikali, is never too far behind with hugs and kisses to follow.
However, things for their family, and so many others on the front lines of COVID-19, are painfully different now.
“For me just coming up [and] seeing her running up - I was just trying to keep it together to be honest. And seeing how upset she was and wanting to come to me, I didn’t want her to see me breakdown,” Zahraa’s father, Sam Sheikali said.
A video shows him only being able to see his daughter through a glass door after a lengthy shift at the hospital he works at.
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Sam Sheikali is an emergency room physician in Atlanta. Like some of his colleagues and thousands of other medical professionals around the world, he’s made the heartbreaking decision to separate from his loved ones to protect them from the novel coronavirus.
“Those on the front lines are making a lot of sacrifices, as you can see with my family, and honestly I’m just one of many who are going through this for the sake of trying to help people that are affected by this virus,” he said.
Life before COVID-19: front-line families share moments before virus outbreak
The soldiers in this fight - doctors, nurses, paramedics, first responders, hospital staff, and more - are answering the call of duty but it comes at a cost: sacrifice.
“We’ve been doing a lot of FaceTiming, even driving by the house and them waving in the window,” said emergency room nurse Kristin Johanning, of Indianapolis. “I can’t take the risk of bringing this disease home to them.”
These sacrifices mean tearful goodbyes to babies, forgoing family dinners, and warm embraces now as left distant memories. Goodnight kisses are traded for hotel rooms or lonely basement cots.
There are extended times apart from the beaming faces that welcome them home and precautionary measures are also taken by stripping their clothes and immediately showering to help curb transmission.
“If it was like a definite timeline of knowing, ‘Ok on this date, I’ll be able to see her again, and I’ll be able to hug my wife, hold my child,” Sam Shekali said. “That would make it easier, but the fact there’s not a real end in sight definitely makes it a lot more difficult.”
Other major milestones in their lives are being put to the test.
“Birthdays are a big deal for our family,” said Mehrdod Ehteshami, another Atlanta-based emergency physician, “We really just kind of go all out for birthdays.”
Ehteshami’s son’s first birthday, which should have been another big celebration for the family, was reduced down to cheers and candles being blown out with loved ones on tiny, separated screens on Zoom.
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“It was hard but it was sweet, also.” he added, highlighting the bright side of their attention on their son’s special moment.
“So, it was really nice in that way. That we got to cherish that, in that way and obviously we’ll never forget it.”
The Ehteshami family
Hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott are pledging millions of free rooms to first responders. Airbnb is committing to house 100,000 people. Pop-up groups like RV’s for MDs are connecting people who have mobile homes with medical staff who need to quarantine away from their families.
These offerings help.
“I feel like I’m called to do this and I take pride in it but….” Ehteshami said.
But for these families, it’s still hard.
“God forbid if I became one of those residents that died from this [and] I had no idea [that] the last time that I hugged her, would be the last time that she’s ever held by her father,” said Sheikali. “And that’s just a hard thought to have.”
During the pandemic, these moms, dads, daughters, and sons, are answering the calls for help so others don’t have to say goodbye to the ones they love.
“He does ask every day when can I come home and that brings tears to my eyes,” Johanning said.
“A lot of medical people kind of get bogged down into perhaps trying to stay too strong, almost, and I feel like that burden carries,” Ehteshami said. “We have such a high rate of suicide and addiction in physicians and times like this make it worse, obviously.
"So it’s the value of community, not just for healthcare workers but just for everybody, is so important," Ehteshami added.
Although every mile apart feels like an ocean for these families, those on the front lines know a homecoming on the horizon - in a safer and healthier world - is something worth fighting for.
“Practice that ability to stay home and help people like myself get home to my family much sooner,” Sam Sheikali said.
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