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She's A Frontline Doctor. Her Husband Has Lung Cancer. Now, A Simple Hug Is Dangerous


Nearly 72,000 health care workers in the United States have been infected with COVID-19. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Working face-to-face with infected patients has forced many nurses and technicians and doctors to make tough decisions both at the hospital and at home. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has the story of one family that's been forced apart by the virus.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Dr. Lauren Jenkins was making dinner for her husband and two young kids one night when she got a call with some news from work. Turns out one of her co-workers who had she'd spent hours with during a long surgery hadn't been feeling well lately. So the co-worker took a coronavirus test, and it came up positive. For anyone, it's a scary call. But for Lauren Jenkins, the news was potentially devastating. Her husband, Jay Roux, has stage IV lung cancer, and his body's defenses to the coronavirus are severely compromised.

LAUREN JENKINS: I was sitting there thinking that perhaps I had been responsible for exposing Jay to the very thing that would kill him.

DREISBACH: Being a doctor, specifically an OB-GYN, is at the core of who she is. But in that moment, she says she felt like that very identity had betrayed her.

JENKINS: For the first time, I felt like my job was making me choose between my life's work and the wellness of my family.

DREISBACH: The next day, she got tested. She turned up negative and felt a flood of relief. But she also realized that she had to make a tough choice.

JENKINS: There can never be a next time. If this is OK, I can never do this to my family again.

DREISBACH: She and her husband talked about how maybe she could sleep in one room and him in another, but the chances of making a mistake just seemed too high. Taking a leave from work wasn't really an option because Jay's on her health insurance plan. But it was about more than that.

JENKINS: You know, you don't leave your team behind. It just didn't feel right.

JAY ROUX: I said, don't not work because of this.

DREISBACH: That's Jay.

ROUX: If this is what you want to do and you want to be on the front lines, then by golly, that's what you're going to do.

JENKINS: So in order to keep her family safe while she kept working, she moved out, eventually landing near her hospital in Philadelphia at an apartment that had been donated for use by health care workers. Every day, she could still FaceTime her husband and their twin toddler boys, Pierce and Ashton. But as we all know, it's just not the same.

ROUX: I miss my wife, you know? And I miss my wife with my children. It's not a home without us all there.

DREISBACH: So in the first few weeks away from home, Lauren started to strategize a way to safely visit her family. She came up with what they call her hazmat suit. It's the same kind of suit you might see in a high-tech lab, hooded set of white coveralls plus gloves, mask, goggles. And the idea was, if she had unknowingly contracted the virus at work, the suit would help protect the rest of her family.

JENKINS: Oh (laughter).

DREISBACH: She almost looks like an astronaut, but you get over it.

JENKINS: Part of what's so cool about kids is that they don't overthink things. It was like, oh, mom's been gone, and now she's here.

This is what the tickle monster looks like. Tickle monster comes in a hazmat suit.


DREISBACH: So about once a week, Lauren would come home in the hazmat suit and see her family. It wasn't like the times before COVID, they say, but it was something.

ROUX: Just when she wears that full suit and I get to even give her a hug and hold her for 5 minutes. It's - oh, it's amazing, you know? Not the real thing, but it's still amazing. I still feel it.


DREISBACH: And then in May, they decided they needed a change. Taking care of twin toddlers was always going to be hard for Jay, even though they have the help of an au pair. But Jay's cancer and heart complications from treatment make it even harder.

ROUX: I'm not 100%. I'm not even half the man I used to be, you know? And I'm only 44.

DREISBACH: The risk of the kids getting seriously sick from the virus was low, so they decided that this time, Jay would move out and Lauren would move back home. The day they made the switch, Jay went out one door of the house, she came in the other. Now Jay still comes by every day, does yard work, but he stays outside.

ROUX: And it's awful. I got to stay, like, 10, you know, 12 feet away from her. And I just got to give her one of those air kisses, you know? And I tell her I love her and then I - and we always say, this is weird, you know? It's just so darn weird. But it won't last forever.

DREISBACH: Not forever. But it's still not clear for them or for any other family exactly how long the pandemic will last. Lauren and Jay say their greatest fear is that they're losing precious time together as a family. As long as Lauren is working, they know the risk from the coronavirus will never be zero. But before they move back in together, they're still waiting for the number of infections to come down so Lauren isn't exposed to quite as many patients with COVID-19. And if places open up too quickly, they're worried the virus will just continue to spread. And that means their family will have to spend that much more time apart.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.