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Olivia Bye and her family in San Leandro on April 13, 2020. The house number has been removed to protect the family's privacy. Beth LaBerge/KQED
Olivia Bye and her family in San Leandro on April 13, 2020. The house number has been removed to protect the family's privacy. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'Haven't Hugged My Mom in a Month:' Kids of Health Care Workers Feel the Strain

'Haven't Hugged My Mom in a Month:' Kids of Health Care Workers Feel the Strain

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As front line health care workers dedicate long hours to caring for patients during the COVID-19 crisis, life has changed for their own families — especially their children.

Some hospital workers are staying away from their families to protect their kids. Others are living in the same house and taking extra precautions to avoid passing along the virus. Many children of nurses and doctors are navigating the unpredictability of life without regular school, along with the stress of worrying about their parents. Here's a look inside the lives of four families' kids.

Tamu Bustos outside of Highland Hospital in Oakland on April 16, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When Mom Comes Home, She Stays Outside

Marshall Rocha, 15, and Marina Rocha, 18, in Clovis

For Marshall and Marina Rocha, the spread of coronavirus means they can’t hug their mom.

The teen siblings live in Clovis, near Fresno. Their mom, Tamu Bustos, works as an ER nurse at Highland Hospital in Oakland. She sleeps in a trailer in the Bay Area, but when she gets a day off, she makes the three-hour drive home to see her kids. With the coronavirus outbreak, those visits have gotten tougher.

Tamu doesn’t want to put her children at risk, so she avoids going inside the house where the kids stay with their dad while she’s at work. She also limits how often she visits her kids and for how long — sometimes for as little as an hour at a time.

“Obviously we can’t touch each other,” said Marshall, who is a sophomore in high school. “I'd love to give her a hug, and make sure she's fine because I'm a mama's boy. I love my mom. She's really sweet, kind and amazing. I really don't know what I would do if she got hurt or sick.”

Last time they saw their mom, they noticed a change.

“Her eyes started to bag and darken,” Marina, a senior, explained. “It's clear she's not getting as much sleep. She looked like she lost a lot of weight from stress alone.”

Anytime they do see her, they stay much more than six feet apart.

On a recent visit, they went to a drive-thru burger joint and talked to each other from separate cars. Another time, the siblings walked to the school down the street from their house. The kids sat on one side of the stadium while their mom sat on the other, and they had breakfast together.

The coronavirus has also impacted Marina and Marshall’s bigger celebrations, too. Last week, Marina celebrated her 18th birthday without a big party, but her mom got a day off work and stood far away as Marina blew out her candles. Marina won’t get a high school graduation this year, either, but she said all of these milestones don’t mean as much as they did.

“We get to hear all the horror stories of the ER room,” said Marina. “You realize this is not something to joke around about. There are people who actually don’t get the same opportunities you do.”

Tamu Bustos and her children, Marshall and Marina Rocha, pose for a family photo on vacation in Australia. (Courtesy of Tamu Bustos)

Marina and Marshall say they’re worried about their mom, but say she’s one tough cookie.

“In all honesty, the best word I can say is ‘hardass,’” Marina said. “The joke with her has always been that it doesn't matter if you start to bleed or you break a bone, you just put a Band-Aid on it. But at the same time, she loves us and she tries to be there for us.”

“We have a more real connection, we have a more real perception of life as well,” she continued. “On the topic of death — we already know what she wants when she dies. It's a very normal conversation for us. We can talk about things like that because that's what she faces every day.”

Marina said watching her mom hasn’t inspired her to become a nurse — she said she values sleep too much. But she isn’t sleeping much these days. Instead she said she lays in bed at night, imagining the worst case scenarios of what could happen to her mom.

Marina has to be her mom’s alarm clock sometimes — calling to wake her up for a night shift. Other times, Marina and Marshall stay up late just for the opportunity to talk to their mom on the phone. They say they speak every day, asking when she’ll come home and telling her how much they miss her.

It’s been really hard for Tamu not to get to see her kids, she said.

“When the world is talking about social distancing, I go to an empty trailer after work and get to talk to my kids by phone,” she said. “I’m completely alone. I don’t get to see my friends. Or my family. I’m 100% alone. I don’t get to be a mom. I don’t get to be a friend. I don’t get to be an active participant in my family. I can’t even hug my kids.”

But Tamu says her kids are her heroes through all of this.

"I can only promise my kids that I will be safe and I will call them tomorrow. I just hope this is the one promise I don’t break. I hope this is over soon. I hope to have life back again," Tamu wrote in a text to KQED. "I can’t wait to sit on the couch with a kid on each side of me as I fall asleep holding them."

Olivia Bye in San Leandro on April 13, 2020.

Health Complications. And Then, the Coronavirus Hit

Olivia Bye, 14, in San Leandro

Olivia Bye, 14, likes her independence. But since the coronavirus outbreak, she’s had to be even more self-sufficient than usual. Olivia’s mom, Berenice Perez, is an emergency room doctor at a hospital in Oakland, and works long hours either treating COVID-19 patients directly or doing administrative work to address the hospital’s response to the crisis. Olivia’s dad works in IT tech support, a job requiring him to go into the office each day.

Olivia says the transition to spending days home alone hasn’t been too difficult. She prepares easy meals like pasta and grilled cheese to get her through the day, which she spends attending Zoom classes in advance of her eighth grade graduation. Despite those adjustments, Olivia says the biggest challenge has been worrying about her mom.

“My mom doesn't like to talk about [the coronavirus] a whole lot when she comes [home] from work,” said Olivia. “Sometimes we’ll have discussions about it, but it's her whole life now. So when she comes home she likes to have a little break and not to think about it constantly because she already does at the hospital.”

Berenice takes diligent precautions to ensure she doesn’t spread the virus around the house. She follows a system of leaving her protective coverall outside the door, sealing it in a bag, throwing it in the laundry, and quickly hopping in the shower — all while cleaning the surfaces she’s touched along the way. She also occasionally eats dinner on the other side of the room and sleeps in Olivia’s older sister’s empty bed.

All these precautions are extra important, Olivia said, because her mom had a hole in her heart that caused a small stroke last April, and had a procedure to close the hole in November. Berenice said she isn’t more susceptible to facing complications as a result of COVID- 19 than other women of her age. But it’s been challenging for the family to reconcile her recent health scare with the unknowns of the pandemic.

“I can tell that she's always nervous and on edge about it,” Olivia said. “She didn't really expect this to be her new reality. But it's her job, so she's just trying to figure out how to make it less scary. But she's always going to have a constant worry in the back of her mind.”

Olivia is worried, too. She said it’s been difficult to stay positive about the situation.

“I think the days where it feels really hard for me are the same days that it feels really hard for my mom,” she said. “It’s hard to know what the bright side could be. I guess I try and think it's not going to last forever. It is going to get better at some point.”

These days, Olivia calms her mind by connecting with friends and keeping up on her schoolwork. She also writes fictional stories to help her process her feelings. She’s even writing a character whose parent also suffers from health challenges.

“I can form any reality I want with this,” she said. “And I incorporate my feelings into the story as an outlet.”


The Skarbinski family is dealing with both parents being on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of the Skarbinski family)

When Both Parents Work on the Front Lines

Isan Skarbinski, 12; Nadja Skarbinski, 10; and Lev Skarbinski, 7; in Berkeley

For the Skarbinski siblings, home life has shifted dramatically with the spread of the coronavirus. Their dad is an infectious disease doctor and their mom is a medical epidemiologist — both working on the frontline of the pandemic. The kids admit the adjustment has been tough.

“It's kind of hard because a lot of the time they're not here, especially my dad,” said Isan, a sixth grader. “My mom is working from home now, but before that she was working and coming home at 11 o’clock. And my dad is working all the time.”

Though their mother now works from home, her days are still long and filled with taking meetings and contact tracing the virus. The kids don’t want to interrupt her. That leaves Isan, the oldest, to care for his youngest siblings throughout the day.

“My brother is helping me a lot,” said seven-year-old Lev. “He gets me on all of my [Zoom] classes.” The two also do homework and build the Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego set together most days.

When their parents have finally clocked out of work each night, Isan said they often talk quietly about the coronavirus amongst each other. But the kids would rather avoid talking about the pandemic.

“We try not to talk about COVID at home,” Isan said. “We avoid it because if we talk about it for the rest of the night it just gets to be no fun.”

Nadja, 10, agrees. “We don't really like to hear it because it's not very reassuring that it's ever going to end,” she said.

Nadja most openly expresses how challenging it’s been to juggle schoolwork and her worry about her parents. She’s the most concerned about her dad, who works at a hospital treating COVID- 19 patients.

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“I worry that [my dad] is going to get the virus and that he won't survive,” she said. “He can't say it's gonna be okay because if it's not, he'd be lying. So he doesn't really respond.”

When the worry gets to be too much, Nadja takes some alone time in her room, reads a book and reassures herself it’ll be okay.

The Skarbinski kids say there are many happy moments, too. Their dad gets home past bedtime, but the time they have together is always fun.

“Most of the time when we see him we just play,” said Isan. “Our time with him has changed. We obviously have less, but it's more play time … All the time we can get with him we play with him.”

On their parents’ days off, they’ll play music together as a family or spend time outside in the backyard. On Easter, they were able to organize a special Polish brunch.

“I know, in the end, the virus can't go on forever,” Nadja said. “It's going to end somehow.”

Bela Gonzales, 14, and her brother Louie Licea, 15, have been taking care of their little sister and running the house while their parents have been working long shifts during the COVID- 19 crisis. They also dyed their hair a matching shade of pink while sheltered in place at home. (Courtsy of Veronica Licea)

More Tension at Home, But It's Brought Them Closer

Bela Gonzales, 14; Louie Licea, 15; Mia Licea, 4 in Alameda

Bela and Louie’s mom, Veronica, is an ER nurse at Kaiser Oakland. Their dad is a firefighter paramedic. Both parents are putting in longer hours with the coronavirus crisis.

“Honestly, I feel that the hardest thing is the tension in my house," said 14-year-old Bela. “Since both of my parents are in the medical field, they're both feeling so much stress. There's just so much tension between everybody in our house.”

“You gotta separate yourself a little bit and give them their space that they need,” added Louie, 15.

Both kids say they’ve had to learn to rely more on themselves and each other, rather than their parents, who are working long hours.

“We have to find ways to keep ourselves on track rather than relying on them to keep us on track. A positive of this would be that it’s teaching us a lot of responsibility," Bela said.

Bela and Louie have had to step up with child care for their four-year-old sister, Mia. They feed her, bathe her and put her to bed, because their mom works until midnight at the hospital.

Louie said the hardest thing is wondering what kinds of dangers his parents are actually facing on the job when he can’t talk to them.

Firefighter paramedic Louie Licea with his family: Bela Gonzales, 14, ER nurse Veronica Licea, Mia Licea 4, and Louie Licea II, 15. (Courtesy of Veronica Licea)

“I'm always thinking, ‘I wonder if she's dealing with any patients. I wonder if he's going on any calls for patients.’ It's just hard because you don't really know what's going on," he said.

Bela says it’s hard to find appropriate ways to communicate with their parents about what they’re seeing at work. “Because this is such a sensitive topic for them,” she said. “We're not on the front lines. We're not seeing the people that have this illness. And they are.”

Bela and Louie say their family is close-knit. They love to watch movies together and share meals. So their biggest fear is that if a parent gets sick, someone else in the family will, too.

“And if they both get it, then we would really have to start being more responsible than we are right now,” Louie said.

To relax, he’s been playing T-ball in the backyard and hanging out with their puppy. But mostly, he’s been teaming up with Bela on chores and hanging out with her. The crisis, they both say, has brought them closer as siblings. They even dyed their hair a matching shade of pink.

“We talk to each other a lot,” Louie said. “Especially now, we’ve started telling each other what we’re scared of and how it’s making us feel about them going to work. We’re just trying to be there for each other.”

Bela has some advice for other kids whose parents are frontline responders.

“Talk to your parents,” she said. “Even if you lash out at them because of how frustrated you are, your parents will always understand where it’s coming from and how you’re feeling. They’re always going to try their best to make you not feel like that. Just know you’re not alone. It’s gonna suck for a little while.”

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