Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Sending Moms Into War

The fight against the coronavirus invokes the language and imagery of war. It’s a battle, with health care workers on the front lines, the wounded dying alone, hospital ships deployed to hot zones and makeshift morgues to store the dead.

But unlike any war we’ve ever fought before, our front lines are filled with mothers. Nearly 90% of registered nurses in America are women. About a third of practicing doctors are women. They, along with their male colleagues, are being treated in ways we could never fathom our government treating soldiers in a war fought with missiles and bombs. 

There still aren’t enough tests, even though the president and vice president promised there would be. There still aren’t enough N95 masks or ventilators, despite weeks of pleading for help. As early as Feb. 5, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked for $2 billion to buy respirator masks and other supplies for a depleted federal stockpile of emergency medical equipment. The White House cut that request by 75%, the Washington Post reported. The coronavirus was spiking in other parts of the world then, but American leaders were still downplaying it and comparing it to the flu, as they continued to do during the most critical weeks that could have been used to contain the damage.

Let’s compare this war, where health care workers are being asked to fight under unconscionable conditions, to how our country responded the last time we were under attack.

The United States has spent more than $2 trillion on its war on terror just through the Department of Defense spending. More people in America have now died of COVID-19 than were killed in the attacks on Sept. 11. The Defense Production Act -- which the New York Times reported has been used hundreds of thousands of times in the Trump years to speed production of chemicals used to construct military missiles, procure materials needed to build drones, and order body armor for border-patrol agents -- was sidelined for too long in a war against a virus now projecting to kill hundreds of thousands of us. Despite the willingness to use the act for military supplies, the president became reluctant to use it to compel production of desperately needed medical supplies.

Why didn’t this war fought in American emergency rooms mobilize the same sense of urgency, the same resources, as the wars fought in Middle Eastern deserts?

Explain that to Dr. Christie Pickrell, an ER doctor at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis and EMS medical director for the Mehlville Fire Department. Her husband is also a physician. They have three children, ages 6, 3 and 1.

Their baby had a fever for five days, and they tried to get him tested for COVID-19. Their pediatrician told them to call the hospital COVID hotline to set up testing, but they were told he didn’t qualify, despite being in a household with two physicians with known exposure. They had to cancel their child care, because they were told to presume their baby is COVID positive. They rearranged their work schedules, but are still expected to go into work.

“None of this makes sense,” Pickrell said. “Right now, because the number of cases in Missouri are grossly underreported, I’m truly scared for the public.”

People don’t realize how many patients they are sending home with symptoms, without testing, and telling them to assume they are positive, she said.

“I’ve never felt so helpless” as a doctor, she said. “I took a Hippocratic oath to take care of people. That’s what I signed up for. But when my son has a fever, what about my own family? Why can’t I take care of them?”

It wasn’t until 2013 that the Secretary of Defense removed the military’s long-standing ban on women serving in combat. In this war against coronavirus, the CDC has said health care workers, some of whom are single mothers with babies at home, can resort to bandanas and scarves if they can’t get the protective equipment they need. Imagine our government telling Marines in a war zone to fashion their own helmets and weapons.

Nevertheless, health care “soldiers” continue to show up. Pickrell, who is 35, said she has offered to take the riskier procedures, like putting patients on ventilators, from her older male colleagues, whose age and gender makes them more vulnerable to complications if they become infected.

In this war, a young mom with sick children at home is protecting the older male doctors in her department by risking her own life.

And our country can’t promise her a clean respirator or a COVID test for her babies.