Two years in: The pandemic through the eyes of a health care worker’s spouse
Nicole Oberhelman’s house is small, cozy and brims with character. Every corner tells a story. A painting of the first dance from her wedding is next to the TV. Up until early March, Christmas decorations were still on display. The holiday was extra special this year, because it was the closest to a normal one she’s had since the pandemic started.
Nicole’s life has been upended by the pandemic in many of the same ways as others — she switched to remote work, quarantined from family members and wore masks in public. But her specific experience over the past two years isn’t shared by all — she is the wife of a health care worker who spent time on the frontlines.
Stories about the weight doctors and nurses carried over the past two years abound, but their immediate family members — partners and children — rarely share this unenviable spotlight.
Nicole met her husband, Forrest Oberhelman, 29, during their freshman year of college. They got married in late 2019, just as Forrest was about to turn a page on his dream of graduating from medical school.
“You know, the first big milestone was him graduating medical school, and it was a virtual graduation,” Nicole, 29, said. “And that was kind of the first like, ‘OK, we need to adjust.’”
When it was time to choose a medical specialty for Forrest, they decided that he would go into pain medicine and rehabilitation, or PM&R training. Typically, PM&R physicians almost never have to tell a patient they lost a loved one. If anything, they are the ones who work on improving a patient's ability to move and overall quality of life after surgeries — and the Oberhelmans loved that. They thought they understood what training would look like.
But just two months into Forrest’s training, he was pulled away from his PM&R rotations and deployed to care for COVID-19 patients at Indiana University Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
“Being a new physician and having to call family members and tell them that, ‘You have a day to get to the hospital, I think that your mother is being upgraded to the ICU; she may not make it til tomorrow,’ and to never receive formal training in how to deliver that news or to cope with that was certainly difficult,” Forrest said.
Forrest said he wouldn’t wish that upon anybody.
But delivering bad news was not the scariest part. In January 2020, Nicole had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system.
“I started going through treatment for that. And so I was like mid-treatment when March came around,” Nicole said. “And, you know, when we found out he was going to be working with a lot of COVID patients, there were definitely some worries that we had.”
Cancer treatment weakened her immune system and made her vulnerable to COVID-19. It was nerve-wracking for her to know that her husband was in the hospital everyday, face-to-face with a deadly virus everyone knew so little about at the time — there were no vaccines or treatments on the horizon then.
Like most people at the time, they weren’t sure what was the best way to stay safe, so they came up with their own system. They still lived together, but everyday after work, before any interaction, Forrest would toss his clothes in the laundry and hop in the shower.
“And, you know, by the time he was all clean and everything like that, like, that's when we can begin our home routine of being like, ‘Hello, we live together, we're married. Now let's spend time together,’” Nicole said.
Because Forrest was seeing COVID patients everyday, they were strict about staying home and keeping their distance from loved ones, especially older family members. That meant Nicole went through most of her cancer treatment all alone.
“You think about going through a serious illness like that, and you really crave a lot of that support,” she said. “Forrest went with me to my first chemo, and then the rest of them, I was by myself. And so that was really hard. Not having someone there to kind of distract me from what was going on.”
Her mom would drop off pots of Filipino comfort food and she spoke to her friends on the phone, but it wasn’t the same as in-person support would have been.
“You know, when someone is really sick, it's usually like, ‘Oh, I'm going to come visit you. Oh, I'm going to bring you dinner. Oh, I'm gonna, you know, do x-y-z things in-person to support you,’” she said.
Family members deserve thanks too
Forrest said health care workers got all the thanks, but their immediate family members are not recognized nearly enough. With everything his wife had been going through, she was still his safe space to “recharge” and debrief after traumatic experiences.
“It was very stressful to be in the hospital for 60 to 80 hours a week as an intern resident,” Forrest said. “Just having the support of my wife at home … I think it's probably the most important thing that got me through all this. So, I'm very fortunate.”
Nicole is a school psychologist for children with disabilities and worked remotely for more than a year. Many of her friends and family who were working virtually also had spouses working from home, but being the wife of a doctor meant this could not be a reality for her.
“I was a bit envious that they get to see their spouses a lot more often and kind of split a lot of responsibilities,” she said.
That struck her even more when she became a new mother as they had their baby girl Alina in summer 2021.
The Oberhelmans were not able to have a baby shower; they have not been able to host in their new home that they bought in June 2020; they didn't have play dates for Alina when she was born. And they haven’t taken a trip to Ireland, which they had planned on for years.
But things are starting to get a little better. It will be two years in June since Nicole’s cancer went into remission. They got vaccinated and so did older family members. And that has allowed them to grow their social bubble to include extended family.
The dining and living rooms are lined with many baby toy boxes — most of them outsize Alina. Nicole said their family gifted Alina with “a mountain of toys for Christmas”.
Nicole said they are taking it one day at a time, enjoying some sort of normalcy while it lasts.
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes the Indianapolis Recorder and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Farah on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym.