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Parenting is tough business. Now, consider what that would be like if you were socially distancing from your wife and kids. Through a pandemic.
Such was life for Dr. Jake Flinkman, who works in the emergency department at UnityPoint Health – Marshalltown. When COVID-19 started to surge, he did what many other providers across the nation did. He kept his distance from his family to keep them safe, while ensuring he would stay as healthy as possible for the community that needed him.
So, for 43 days and nights, Dr. Flinkman was unable to hug his wife, Molly, or embrace their children, Lily, 7, Norah, 5, Sawyer, 3, and Jude, 1. He spent many nights in a separate living area at the home of Dr. Lance VanGundy, the ER Medical Director in Marshalltown. Other times, he hunkered down in his family’s three-season room, which required space heaters and extra blankets on nights when the temperatures dipped below freezing.
Through it all, he tried to be as present and impactful as possible. He visited with his family by Facetime and dropped by the house to read a book through the sliding glass door or play checkers from a different room with an extension pole and paint roller rod.
"By the end of that six-week period I was driving home almost every day I was off and spending time with my family and just keeping my distance," Dr. Flinkman says. "It was particularly challenging for my youngest son, Jude, who didn’t understand why he couldn't hug dad or why dad couldn't come inside.
"At one point, I couldn’t keep him from trying to come close to me, so I climbed on the roof of my garage so I could watch the kids play and also talk with my wife without putting Jude at risk."
At other times, Dr. Flinkman would play charades, Battleship and tic-tac-toe, sometimes using dry erase markers on opposite sides of a glass door.
"It was very inconvenient," he said. "I was unable to show previously routine physical affection to my wife and kids. I was unable to scoop up Jude in my arms when he skinned his knee and had to bear the perplexed look in his tear-filled eyes as he waited for Molly to make the trek across the yard to render aid. And it was challenging to maintain a role of disciplinarian for my kids when I was unable to later hug them and tell them I love them."
Dr. Flinkman knew there would be sacrifices when he applied to medical school, and he and Molly have already experienced several related to his education and residency. But COVID-19 was different.
"Molly is truly the unsung hero in all of this, as I suspect is the case for most healthcare workers' spouses," he said. "She had to fill the void left by my absence. She was playing single mother to four kids ages 7 and under. Ultimately, the added work that resulted from my absence fell to Molly, while I was still just doing the job I signed up for in the ER."
Dr. Flinkman ended his quarantine after Iowa realized its peak in positive cases. By that time, the medical community was confident it would have enough of its necessary resources, such as ventilators, beds, respiratory professionals, specialists and more.
"From a medical standpoint, it was really not much different from the norm," he said. "I'm exposed to serious, contagious diseases often in my job, and this was no different. Thankfully, in Iowa, so far, we have had the resources necessary and great leadership in our healthcare systems to weather this storm.
"Other than (wearing extra personal protective equipment), work in the ER was business as usual, taking care of sick people with a higher percentage being sick with serious respiratory disease. Through all of this, I was grateful to have a job that continued to put food on the table for my family, as well as to have the support of our church, friends and family."