Keeping the Virus (and the Worry) Away

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Craig Spencer, ER doctor and Ebola survivor, knew COVID was going to be a big deal before most people did. While this gave him and his family plenty of time to stock up on food and supplies, it also meant having to ask tough questions early on about how he’d keep his family safe while battling the virus on the frontline in New York City: “What happens if you get sick, Craig? What do we do? How do we isolate you? What happens if you bring this home?” Hear about Craig’s grueling 12-hour shifts in the emergency room, and his silver lining of the past year.


You can follow Craig Spencer on Twitter @Craig_A_Spencer.


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Dr. Craig Spencer

Dr. Craig Spencer  00:05

Hi, I’m Craig Spencer and you’re listening to GOOD KIDS. I’m an emergency medicine doctor and a public health professional. And I’m going to talk about what it was like working in an emergency room during COVID coming home and taking care of my kid and my family and trying to keep us all safe for the past year.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

What did I like growing up, I liked not getting in trouble going to school. Playing hockey, I played hockey for a really long time, I thought I was going to be a professional hockey player specifically for the Montreal Canadiens. So that’s why I decided to learn French. I was convinced also that in addition to playing professional hockey, I would be a sharkologists you may not have heard of it. It’s pretty niche. It is one who study sharks, it turns out, it actually doesn’t exist. And someone told me, You need to be a marine biologist first to do that. And I was like, I don’t like algae. So I gave up on that. And decided instead that I was going to be a cardiothoracic surgeon for a few reasons.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

One, it was the longest word that I think I could have sat at, like 9 or 10, cardiothoracic. And then I was looking at microfiche, which people probably have no idea what it is. But it’s like the old Internet with these big like blue kind of pages that you would put under this big magnifying glass and you would look at it. And we had to do job search one day. And that was the one that made the most money. So I was like, cool. I’m going to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. And to prepare for that I did what all future cardiothoracic surgeons should do as an undergrad. I studied medieval history with a focus on the derivation of romance languages.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

And I went to medical school, and that’s what I was going to do. No one could convince me otherwise. And then I started working internationally and completely changed my whole outlook. And now since then, I’ve really dedicated my life to global health, humanitarian response, and working in places where medical needs are much greater than in many places here in the US. So after I changed my career to become not a psychologist and not a cardiothoracic surgeon, I worked in international emergency medicine focused on global health, primarily with organizations like Doctors Without Borders.

Dr. Craig Spencer  02:30

And in 2014, I was working in West Africa in Guinea during the Ebola outbreak there. I was taking care of Ebola patients in an Ebola treatment center every single day from sun up to sundown. And at some point in that process, was infected myself and came back to the US, was symptomatic, went to the hospital and spent 19 days in the hospital getting over and starting to recover from Ebola

Reporter on TV 

And the first New Yorker confirmed to have a bullet is in serious but stable condition this morning in Bellevue Hospital.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

You know, looking back in a sense, it was good. I think they had tried to put a TV into the room, beforehand. They were doing all this prep to get prepared, but some of them mess with the cords and the wires and like it just didn’t work and they apologize. I’m like, what am I gonna do for the next few weeks? Other than try to stay alive? I don’t got no TV. But you know, looking back, it was good because it turns out there was, there was a lot going on.

Reporter on TV 

Dr. Craig Spencer tested positive for the disease last night.

Reporter on TV

On Thursday morning, Spencer began complaining of a high fever, nausea and exhaustion. The day before despite feeling fatigued. He went on a three-mile run, rode the subway and went bowling. He was driven home in an Uber car.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

There was a lot that I think was going on just in terms of critiquing, you know, myself and critiquing kind of our response as a country in terms of preparedness. And little did I know how much of this would foreshadow? You know, 2020 and COVID.

Dr. Craig Spencer  04:22

I think I knew COVID was going to be a much bigger deal before. A lot of people and I would hope that’s the case I’d written about pandemic preparedness in 2018 and 2019. This has been something I’ve kind of contributed my life to. And so, you know, months before everyone was starting to freak out. We had made plans, we had started thinking about really the next steps for us and how do we prepare our household knowing that we have a kid, knowing what we went through in 2014 and some songs that was great having that knowledge because we were able to be the people at Trader Joe’s with a cart full of food. When everyone was looking at my wife, like, this is a crazy person. And she’s like, kind of just wait.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

And we never ran out of toilet paper we were doing okay. But at the same time, it also, you know, made us think about those really difficult discussions very early on in the pandemic, when things started getting bad here in New York, like, what happens if you get sick, Craig. What do we do? How do we isolate you? What happens if you bring this home? How do you not bring this home? How is this going to transmit? Do we need to get a baby gate and like isolate our, you know, one and a half year old? from you? Should you be staying in a hotel? And should you not be coming home?

Dr. Craig Spencer 

You know, all of these questions that I think people ultimately ended up asking themselves in the heat of the moment, we were able to do beforehand, knowing kind of what was coming. But it was in some sense kind of triggering, it was also just really difficult to go through and ask those questions, again, because the answers, one weren’t known. And they weren’t really easy.

Dr. Craig Spencer  06:05

By the time early of mid to late March, I was going to work and it was hard for me to not be taking care of a COVID patient, like you’re just kind of inundated our emergency department in the span of a week. And, you know, emergency medicine doctors will work, you know, anywhere from three to four days a week, which may not sound like a lot, but that’s you know, middle of the day shifts, that’s overnight shifts, that’s 12-hour shifts, which are pretty, pretty damn grueling. And kind of on top of all of this, this exhaustion and craziness that just comes with the job that we do.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

You know, COVID itself was mentally exhausting. One because it was a disease that we hadn’t seen. And so we didn’t know exactly how to treat early on. And two, because of this anxiety, you know, all of my coworkers were worried they hadn’t been through anything like this before. I had so I think in some way that kind of hardened me and prepared me. But then I would get off work. And I would come home wondering, where am I bringing virus home with me is it on my bag, is it in my hair. And so yeah, I’d come home. And I would strip in the hallway.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

And I would put everything in a bag, and I would isolate it in a separate part of the house. And I would go and I would shower immediately, making sure to kind of rinse all of the, the worry and the virus away. And you know, trusted at the end of that, you know, showering and bleaching my phone and everything else that came in the house, that that was the best that we could do. And hopefully that was safe enough.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

Even at the peak, what was complicating things were one having a one-year-old who up until that point had been in daycare, you know, Monday to Friday from 9 until almost 5pm. And that’s the time that I would get my work done. And my wife would get her work done. And so obviously, with COVID and everything shutting down with our daycare, not seeming like a safe option. And me going to work and at the same time, you know, starting to do a bunch of interviews and trying to write and trying to really educate the rest of the country on what we were seeing and what they would likely be seeing soon. It was tough, there were days where we would recognize it was 5 or 6pm and we hadn’t eaten yet.

Dr. Craig Spencer  08:19

There was a lot of anxiety, always in the air. And not just with the exposure, risk, but just how difficult it was for professionals to be working from home and trying to entertain, you know, a 16-month-old and make sure that she was being given the attention and the engagement and the love that she needed every day. And you know, in some sense, the silver lining for all of this is that I spent more time with my one-year-old than I ever would have right? Like we would have just continued dropping her off at daycare, Pickering […] up and going through that you know those motions every single day. And there were times where I was definitely frustrated and annoyed and just needed to get something done.

Dr. Craig Spencer

And she was there poking me refusing to sleep or, you know, demanding water, whatever it may be. But I’d you know, those seven months, where she was with us by our side 24/7 will always be very special. The one important thing is that we’re having this discussion, I’m able to look back and reflect and, and really things all worked out right, like the pandemic came in, crushed us and then receded. And we’ve been able to adapt. And we were able because we were lucky enough to have jobs other than mine where I had to go in and take care of patients like I could teach remotely; my wife could work remotely. We were lucky and that we were capable of adapting and having our child at home and we had employers that understood that, That was our new life.

Dr. Craig Spencer

We also didn’t get sick and we were really lucky that the PPE worked and we didn’t have to go through the same process that some of my friends and colleagues and other people had to go through. So, you know, reflecting back it may seem like my story is, is one big success, but a lot of it is, I think, preparation and having this experience from beforehand. A lot of this is, you know, just kind of following the science and the recommendations throughout and being privy to a lot of that, as you know, just by virtue of what I do.

Dr. Craig Spencer  10:22

And then a lot of it was just quite frankly, we got lucky, and some people didn’t. And that’s not a failure on anyone’s part. That’s not that we did anything better. Parenting through this has been a challenge, even in the best-case scenario, which I think is ours. So I completely understand if it wasn’t so rosy or so wonderful for a lot of people that are listening.

Dr. Craig Spencer 

You can follow me on Twitter and medium at craig_a_spencer. Thank you for listening to GOOD KIDS.


GOOD KIDS is a Lemonada Media Original. Supervising producer is Kryssy Pease. Associate producer is Alex McOwen and Kegan Zema is our engineer. The show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. The music is by Dan Molad with additional music courtesy of APM music. Check us out on social at @LemonadaMedia, recommend us to a friend and rate and review us wherever you listen to podcast. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at Until next week, stay good.

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