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The News & Observer is telling the stories of “Healthcare Heroes,” those on the frontlines of treating coronavirus patients. Others are managing the equipment that allows those patients to be treated safely. These workers are putting their own health and the health of their families at risk every day so they can help others. Here are their stories.
Their kids tried, at least. They tried sharing concern with their parents, knowing it probably wouldn’t make a difference. Brooks and Darlene Wilkins have been practicing medicine alongside each other for a long time. They understand their responsibility.
He’s a doctor, 71 years old. She’s a nurse, and 68. At the start of the pandemic, when it became more and more certain that the novel coronavirus would not simply fade away as some had hoped, their three adult children warned them of the risks they faced, seeing and treating patients.
“I had to stop and say, ‘Look, you know what we do,’” Darlene Wilkins said during a recent phone interview. “That’s all I could say. And then they really couldn’t argue.”
Dr. Brooks Wilkins has been a family physician in Raleigh since 1982. He and Darlene have been married even longer than that — 46 years. When they met, he was going through his residency at UNC Hospitals. She was an ICU nurse.
Love at first sight? It kind of was, according to Darlene.
“Well, we met in October and married in June, so whatever that tells you,” she said, laughing.
In some ways, they signed up for a life in medicine together, even if they both aspired to it before they met. Wilkins wanted to be a doctor not long after starting in college at N.C. State, where he was already drawn to science. Darlene grew up in Mocksville, where her mom was something like the unofficial neighborhood nurse, always caring for people.
Pre-existing conditions increase their risk
For decades, the Wilkinses have worked together and treated patients together. Now they’re facing the pandemic together, playing their part amid a public health crisis that has brought the country to a halt. Their ages place them in a more precarious category of risk, as it relates to COVID-19.
So does their line of work. And so, too, do their pre-existing conditions — diabetes for Darlene, a history of heart attacks for Wilkins. Not that they’re aren’t already keenly aware of the risks. They’ve been reminded a time or two.
Wilkins can recite what his daughter said when he came into work one morning, not too long ago.
“I want to tell you and mom something before you get started,” he said, repeating her words from memory. “She said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but you and mom are both at high risk for getting the coronavirus.’”
“And I said, ‘I know, dear, but we’ve got to press on. Let’s see who we’ve got to see.’”
In North Carolina, unlike other parts of the country, the virus has not overwhelmed the health care system. Hospitals aren’t full. ICUs have not been overrun. Perhaps it’ll remain that way, if social distancing measures continue to work, and if the most dire projections remain worst-case hypotheticals, instead of becoming reality.
And yet there’s still risk, and danger, for people on the front lines. The Wilkinses don’t work in a hospital, or in an emergency room setting, but the virus has arrived at their practice. They’ve tested more than a dozen patients for it and three or four of them, Wilkins said, had to be hospitalized after testing positive.
Offering hope to counter fear
The Wilkinses have experienced the virus through the lens of a smaller, more mom-and-pop medical practice, the kind where trust is built over decades. These days, Wilkins can sense the fear from people who might call in. Telemedicine has become a more important part of what he does, given the risks of seeing people in person.
“Their anxiety level’s pretty high,” Wilkins said. “Understandably so. So we try to talk to them in terms of what the facts are and make them aware of what our current situation is. And try to offer a little bit of hope and reassurance to alleviate their anxiety. But they’re anxious. And they see the bad, and they wonder if they’re going to end up being a part of that bad one day.”
There is more fear, too, about simply walking into a doctor’s office. Darlene Wilkins said she and other members of the staff have tried keeping everything as disinfected as possible. She washes her hands so much they become dried out, she said. They wipe down the door handles, scrub surfaces. Sanitation has always been important, but now it seems something like life or death.
“(There’s) a lot of fear that they pick up something because they go to a doctor’s office,” Darlene said. “You know, they just don’t know.
“Our patient that’s the sickest has no idea where they got it. She has no idea.”
Coronavirus tests in the parking lot
Not long ago, Darlene Wilkins found herself preparing to see a patient who was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The patient wanted a test, and the Wilkinses and their staff of about a dozen had come to start doing the coronavirus tests in the parking lot outside. So Darlene put on a gown, a mask and two pairs of gloves — two gloves on each hand — and met the patient outside.
She stuck the nasal swab deep into the patient’s nose. That swab would be sent to a laboratory, and then there would be waiting, sometimes several anxious days for the patient.
“Sometimes the turnaround time has been a little lengthy,” Wilkins said.
He could remember his days at medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill, and reading about the pandemic of 1918.
“I never thought that I’d be in this particular situation of testing someone in the parking lot of the office,” he said.
Wilkins, who has suffered two heart attacks and a stroke, tries to maintain his own health through a routine of 1,000 to 1,500 leg presses every morning, and he pays special attention to his weight.
Darlene Wilkins, meanwhile, has been a diabetic for 40 years.
“But I just don’t think about those things,” she said. “I know this is my job and I know that years ago, I signed on to do whatever nursing would take me to do, and this is part of it. So it really doesn’t scare me.”
Still, this is “a fearful time,” Wilkins acknowledged, in large part because of the uncertainty. There is no clear end in sight, no designated date for when life might become normal again, or when the virus might abate or when there might be a vaccine.
Homemade face masks and a stock of PPE
Doctors and nurses, too, are figuring out some things as they go. Wilkins said he has been reading as much as possible about the virus — medical journals and textbooks, mostly. He has tried to connect with colleagues who might have special insight. An ardent college football fan, he has tried to remain hopeful that maybe there will be a season to look forward to in the fall.
The unknowns persist. The Wilkinses have found comfort, then, in routines, and in what they know. And what they’ve known, for nearly 50 years now, is going to work and taking care of patients. The effects of the pandemic have not been felt as intensely at their practice. After a rush of people wanting to get tested weeks ago, things have quieted down some.
If it stays that way, perhaps their supply of personal protective equipment — gowns and masks and gloves — might be sufficient. At home Darlene Wilkins and one of her daughters have been wearing homemade facemasks. If there’s a rush of patients in the coming weeks, they’ll be ready. In the meantime, the Wilkinses think they’ll do what they’ve always done.
“If the good lord will let me, I’m going to keep on working,” Wilkins said. “If I can walk, talk and think, then I may as well work.”