Front-line health care workers in Los Angeles, the current epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., are stretched thin, working under grueling conditions. The long days spent treating so many seriously ill patients — some of whom end up dying alone, forced to say their goodbyes to loved ones over the phone — take a toll.
Russell Buhr is an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an intensive care doctor at two UCLA hospitals. For him, a robust support system has become essential to getting through these difficult times. His husband of four years, Will Murtaugh, also works in the medical field but in a different capacity. He oversees clinical trials of new coronavirus treatments and has previously worked on infectious disease research for HIV and tuberculosis. “I’m not sure how I’d be holding up without him at home,” Buhr told HuffPost.
“We strive to maintain as much routine as possible, but the phrase ‘expect the unexpected has become the overarching theme of our pandemic life,” Murtaugh said. “We are not only dealing with the consequences of the pandemic on our daily lives like everyone else, but because we are both involved in the pandemic response, albeit in different ways, it’s become a constant presence in all aspects of our life.”
Below, the couple opens up about their pandemic experience, how they support each other and what they wish more people understood about COVID-19.
What does a workday look like for you right now?
Buhr: My time is usually 75% research on health care delivery for chronic lung disease and critical care and about 25% clinical work in our intensive care units and lung disease clinic. Lately, my ICU time has gone up about two- to three-fold and I’ve been covering our ICUs for most of the last month.
On a typical day, I come in around 5 to 6 a.m. to get my administrative and research work caught up, then see patients in the ICU all morning. Depending on how busy it is, that can bleed over into the afternoon. I otherwise usually have operations and research meetings all afternoon since I’m part of our pandemic response team.
I usually get home from work around 7 p.m. lately and am on email and writing research papers or grants until 8 or 9 p.m. When I can squeeze in a Peloton ride, walk the dog, watch some “Great British Bake Off” or listen to a podcast to turn off my brain a little, I’m pretty happy about it.
What is a typical day like in your house at this stage of the pandemic?
I know some people feel like the timeline is rushed. But honestly, if we poured a basically unlimited amount of money into science, had a disease that was affecting the entire population, and had the whole world working on it all the time, we could probably get treatments and vaccines to market on actual hosts of disease fast. It’s an excellent example of how well science can work when we give it adequate resources and provide government assistance in getting it across the finish line.