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For 6 Weeks, This Doctor Couldn't See His Toddler

by Dr. Benji Salter

Dr. Benji Salter is a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital on New York’s Upper East Side who typically works on lung and heart surgeries. When COVID-19 hit and surgeries were postponed, he was placed on the ICU access team, inserting access lines to monitor and treat critical COVID patients. At that time, he decided to self-isolate from his young family. His wife Katie took their 19-month-old Oliver to her parents’ house outside the city for one week, which turned into six. Risks remain, but Salter has now reunited with his wife and child — this is his story. As told to Janet Manley.

When it all started, my nanny wasn't coming in and my wife needed to work, and I started working with COVID patients. So my wife went to her parents' house in Scarsdale, in Westchester, New York.

At the beginning I was like, OK, this is going to be amazing. I'm going to be able to sleep, live the bachelor life, this is going to be fantastic. I'm not lying when I say about a day or two into it, I was like, "This sucks." I started working pretty long hours. I was working probably like 7:00 a.m. to 6 or p.m., and on Saturdays as well. The reason why I was doing that was, one, because they needed me. Two, because I didn't want to be at home, because my family wasn't there.

Three weeks turned to six weeks and it really sucked to FaceTime with my wife and kid in the morning, then maybe when he woke up from his nap, and during dinner time, and then having to read a story to him to go to sleep. That was our time. If I was home from work, my time was bath time and my time was like reading him a million books at night to get him to go to sleep. That really became an extra level of stress that neither of us were really enjoying.

Then you add to the fact that my wife felt like she was encroaching on my in-laws’ life being there, and my mother-in-law and my father-in-law were helping take care of Ollie all day while she was working. It just started to bend and almost maybe break the system. At a certain point, we saw the end of me working with COVID patients getting closer, and it was just becoming too emotionally taxing on us. I think the risk started to drop a little bit, decrease a little bit, and I was like, you know what? There are other families of colleagues that I'm working with that are taking a little bit more risk than us and they've been fine. Let's just be smart about this. Let's figure this out. If I come home, if I strip, if I shower, is that enough? My brother's an anesthesiologist in Michigan. He has two young kids. Same situation.

Dr. Benji Salter in a Manhattan hospital, where he works as a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist.

We just said, "Listen, you know what? We're going to have to make it work with her job and with my job and with daycare," and and we reunited. It was a week ago this past Sunday, and they decided to move back in.

[Oliver] was starting to understand things more and become a little bit more vocal and grow up. I immediately saw it. When I saw him the first time, he came in with my wife, we had that emotional embrace, hugging and kissing and he reached out and hugged me, and it was wonderful. I put him down and he kind of got a little bit nervous, a little apprehensive and walked back towards the door to be like, what's going on here?

There were some periods where you're just so isolated that I wished I had had them. Now, there are still periods of worry, but it's like I have them. I can come home.

I had to reintroduce him to the apartment. I'm like, "Ollie, come on. Let's look at your toys and let's see your books in your room." He was very trepidatious, extremely. Looking at the toys like for the first time like, what's this, what's this? It was Mama this, Mama that, everything. It was hard. I'll be honest, it was hard at the beginning. Internally, I was trying to tell myself it was going to be OK. He obviously didn't forget who I was, but he was a mama's boy anyway, and I was going to need to be OK with that. Immediately, I know I recognized how he changed. He was definitely more verbal. He was understanding what we were saying. I could say things to him like, "Hey, could you go bring this to Mama?" And he would.

I was like, "Let's go play with this." He'll sit there and play with stickers by himself. That kind of stuff wasn't happening as much [before]. That really was just crazy to me. It didn't take long, but he's now a dada and a mama's boy. When I leave him in the morning, he's crying for Dada.

Benji, Katie, and their son Oliver. Photo courtesy of Dr. Benji Salter

We'll sing and we'll read. It's like nothing has changed, but so much has changed, I guess, in a weird way, but it's really helped me tremendously. There were definitely some dark kind of, not like pits of depression, but with the stress of work and the stress of not seeing them and the stress of not knowing what is to come. There were some periods where you're just so isolated that I wished I had had them. Now, there are still periods of worry, but it's like I have them. I can come home.

I walk in and I put my stuff down, and all of a sudden, I see this little head pop up from the stroller facing the TV, and he's just like, pops his head over and gives me this big smile, like welcome home, Dada. I'm like, I'm going to shower. As soon as I shower, he runs over to the shower and he pops his head over the gate. I'm done, I'm clean, I'm dry, big hug, big embrace. Katie gets to go finish her meeting and we just get to play and we get to clean up together and play and destroy the place. It's such a welcome, wonderful welcome home now, even though it's chaos.

I'm very, very confident that the patient that comes to my operating room will or will not have COVID. I know that. But until we're testing every single person, I can't say to my wife, I'm 100% certain that I didn't have some kind of exposure today. I'm waiting to get antibody tested, which would give me a little bit more confidence if I could get that. The problem is nobody knows if you're antibody positive, are you in the clear? Nobody knows that. You could still be a carrier with antibodies and give it to somebody else.

My wife and I will walk to work together and I get to say bye [to my son]. When I come home, I can't hug and kiss him. He's still at the age where he throws a tantrum because I can't give him a kiss. As soon as I walk in, I have to say, "Katie grab him," then I go shower before he sees me, even though I know my exposure was extremely small that day. I would say out of all of my department, I'd say at least 75% of them have kids. At least. There's a really, really, really large amount of us that have families.

I'm going to keep doing this until really, there's a vaccine. We're concerned about a second wave. COVID patients are never going to really disappear from the hospital.

This interview has been edited and condensed.