By Adrianne D. Westmoreland, DO, as told to Jennifer Clopton
I’m the mother of 3 girls -- ages 8, 9, and 12 -- and a rural family medicine doctor in Minnesota. At work -- in the emergency room and in our clinic -- I handle everything for my patients of all ages with every kind of health care need you can image affecting pregnant moms, newborn babies, elderly grandparents, and everyone in between.
But let me tell you this: I do not doctor my own children. When it comes to my girls, I’m a mom first, and I can’t be neutral or objective about much related to them. I can also be a pretty strict mom, so what if I didn’t take their complaint seriously at some point and it ended up that something was really wrong with them? I couldn’t live with that, so my kids all have a wonderful pediatrician who sees them for all their health care needs.
At least, that’s what we did before the pandemic. But now, with COVID-19, I find myself having to make health care decisions about my children in a way I never did before, and it is really, really hard.
Where we live, there’s a really low rate of COVID, and we had an option of full-time in-person school, virtual school, or a hybrid. We opted for in-person school -- for the kids’ sanity and our own. They need the socialization, and my husband and I both work full time. So the first day we could send them back for an in-person education, we did.
And at the end of that first day -- THE FIRST DAY!!!! -- my middle child came home complaining of an itchy throat. Suddenly I found myself in the same tricky position as so many other parents across this country -- trying to figure out if our children’s symptoms are due to a cold or COVID and what to do about it.
Now I want to stress that prior to this pandemic, if the girls weren’t feverish, throwing up, or seriously ill, my husband and I sent them to school. But now, even with the tiniest symptom -- a runny nose or itchy throat -- we have to wonder if they could potentially have COVID or something that could spread and have everyone else worrying they have COVID. It’s a LOT of pressure on already busy parents. That night, since she was only complaining of a sore throat, we decided not to make a decision and wait how she seemed in the morning. The next day she had a fever, so we kept her home. By evening she was fine, and she went back the next day.
A few weeks later, my oldest woke up saying her throat hurt too, and we went through this same challenging situation again. She didn’t have a fever or look too sick, so I did the same thing: I told her to go back and rest and give it some time. She slept all day long and woke up the next morning feeling better. I think she was just exhausted from the new school and sports routine.
Having been through this twice so far, I can tell you that these decisions are so very hard. I am so lucky I have the medical knowledge to do a medical workup on my kids when they don’t feel well, and you better believe I am now looking in their ears and throat, assessing if they look sick, checking for fevers, GI symptoms, and doing more of a workup on them then I ever have before. If things seem serious, I’m still taking them to the pediatrician, too. But I do feel like my medical degree is coming in handy when trying to make these challenging pandemic-era decisions about when my kids are healthy enough to go to school.
These days, I’m not just making these decisions for my own children. Other parents are calling me every day asking me to help them figure out if the symptoms their kids are experiencing are due to a cold, allergies, a respiratory illness, or COVID. It’s not always easy to figure it out, and that’s a bummer for families because the rule in the schools around here is that if you have COVID symptoms and no other diagnosis, then you and your family have to quarantine for 10 days. That’s a real hardship on families who need to work and other kids in the family who need school.
So a lot of parents are pushing the decision making off on me when their kids get sick. I get that and I encourage it. That’s what I’m here for. We all need to be parents first and worry about our children, and so it’s smart to let professionals help make these big and challenging decisions. I’m just here to tell you, it’s not always easy to figure it out even for the professionals, and that’s hard on everyone too.
I also know it’s going to get worse before it gets better. My girls’ school has already had a few COVID cases -- none in their classroom yet, but it could happen anywhere. Lots of kids have had viral symptoms too. I thought since they’re wearing masks and sanitizing, we wouldn’t see that as much of that this year, but we still are and will continue to do so.
The best advice I can give you as you’re trying to figure out if your child has COVID, the flu, or a viral or respiratory illness is to remind yourself that this is hard and take things step by step. If you don’t know what to do, ask for help. Reach out to your child’s doctor to advise you. Rely on social support from other parents. If your child doesn’t seem too sick, perhaps wait 24 hours and see if they improve. But trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right -- whether it’s little or big -- definitely take them to get seen.
Whatever happens, just do the best you can. Give yourself and others some grace, and know that these are challenging times and these decisions are hard -- even for a doctor mom.
Adrianne D. Westmoreland, DO, is a rural family medicine doctor in Cloquet, MN. Her clinic, CMH Raiter Family Clinic , is part of Community Memorial Hospital.