For ICU doctor, her work and family are the best antidotes to COVID-19 despair

A 3- by- 5-inch photo is tucked in Dr. Lauren Comisky Rossman’s purse. It’s a picture of the critical care doctor dancing with her father at her wedding, her long, blonde ringlets cascading over a strapless white gown. She doesn’t look at the photo often — COVID-19 protocols don’t allow it in the intensive care unit at St. Clair Hospital — but knowing it is as close as her locker has supported and strengthened her as she and other frontline workers battle the pandemic.

In 2017, Stephen Comisky succumbed to cancer at Dr. Rossman’s Upper St. Clair home. She treasured the privilege of sharing his final days as she regularly witnesses families robbed of similar experiences due to COVID-19 safety measures. The distance between loved ones, especially when one is gravely ill, is what Dr. Rossman calls the hardest part of her job these days.

“My heart breaks when people aren’t able to be with their family members,” she said. “It’s a sad time for many families right now, not just in our community but around the world.”

Dr. Rossman used to listen to the radio on her way to work in Mt. Lebanon. Now she opts for silence. She thinks about the work that lies ahead — and her patients.

“I carry those names in my head, and I keep thinking about them,” she said. “I try to let it go, but these are people in my community…. It’s hard to just switch that off.”

At the end of the day, her work clothes and personal protective equipment, including face masks and a visor, stay at the hospital. Yet the first step when she gets home is to bleach-wipe her shoes. Her next steps are to the washing machine and the shower. Only then can Dr. Rossman hug her husband, Jonathan, 5-year-old son Julian, and 23-month-old daughter Sienna. After a half a day away, she tries to shift right into mom mode, but there are things a hot shower can’t wash away.

Now she’s mom

Dr. Rossman, 38, tries to keep the tragedies (and triumphs) she’s seen to herself to avoid eavesdropping tiny ears. But her husband can read her well, and they both know the best antidote is play.

Julian is an expert money counter thanks to rounds of Monopoly — adult version, not junior. Chutes & Ladders and puzzles are other family favorites. Family walks, even on cold, gray days, provide glints of pre-pandemic normalcy. One healthy distraction is the family’s home gym, where even Julian takes a turn on the Peloton.

Virtual interactions with family and friends are therapeutic, and Dr. Rossman sets aside time almost every day to keep those connections strong. But it’s the support from a network of women, many of whom she’s never met, that grounds her the most.

In 2015, she pioneered a Facebook group of female critical care physicians. She had no inkling what a lifeline the group would be in 2020-21.

“I noticed it was a male-dominated field, and I wanted to get insights from some female intensivists to create a camaraderie and be able to share ideas and support,” she said. “A lot of them are mothers. We’ve been able to come together and be there for each other as people are going through hard situations.”

Together, the 520-member international group has watched the pandemic sweep across the globe. Members have fallen ill from the coronavirus and leaned on each other while recovering. Virus trends and best practices have been shared to the benefit of physicians and patients around the world.

“It’s a huge knowledge bank,” said Dr. Rossman. “With that many minds, the chances of helpful recommendations is so great.”

Frontline family

Time off is not time away from patients. Secure messages from on-service ICU colleagues are exchanged throughout every day, and she checks in with the Facebook group at least once a day.

“I feel like if I were to take a day off of it, I might fall behind. I want to stay as on top of findings and research as much as I can,” said Dr. Rossman. “It’s a daily effort.”

Knowing she would have daily contact with COVID-19, she and her husband discussed whether she would live at home when the pandemic began. They considered a hotel, an apartment and a sequestered area of the house. Sienna was barely 1-year-old and Mr. Rossman works full-time from home.

“We thought so long as I’m diligent with my PPE and sanitization and sanitizing my belongings, we would try it,” said Dr. Rossman. “I’m so glad we did because that was in March, and here we are. I can’t imagine not living with my family for this long.”

She praises St. Clair Hospital for its protocols and PPE and lauds the dedication of her colleagues who apply it correctly each and every time. A gown, gloves, N-95 mask, a secondary mask to protect the N-95, eye protection and a scrub cap are worn even in the most routine patient interactions. A hooded personal respirator — with a tube connected to a waist pack — is worn for higher-risk procedures.

But Mr. Rossman still worries.

“She reassures me all the time that it’s the safest place to be,” he said. “But she’s taking care of a ton of people, and just one accidental thing — that could be her fault or not — could lead to problems down the road. But I’m proud that she’s able to persevere through all of this, and she’s extremely careful and mindful of everything.”

Dr. Rossman has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which eases her husband’s mind. But with so many people not yet vaccinated, concern lingers.

“It’s personal to me,” he said. “I know that people who [shun COVID-19 precautions] will inevitably infect somebody or infect themselves, and lead to more people being in the hospital, which means more people Lauren has to treat, which means more chances that she can catch it or other people in the community can catch it. It’s a snowball effect, really. It bothers me a lot.”

Discovering her purpose

Dr. Rossman was 8 years old when her 36-year-old mother died after a virus attacked her heart. The tragedy nudged her toward a medical career.

“When the pandemic hit and we were hearing about the cardiac effects of COVID-19 on young, healthy people, it reminded me of why I do this and how personal it is to me,” she said.

The opportunity to care for her own ailing father — who raised her alone on the outskirts of Boston — also informs her approach to her work. Along with her colleagues, Dr. Rossman refuses to let a patient die alone. She believes the presence of a caring human being, whomever they may be, provides comfort for families who must stay distant.

Those moments trigger memories of her father’s last days. She thinks about the photo in her bag more often lately, knowing her father and best friend would worry about her. She daydreams about what she would say to him.

“I’d say, ‘I’m OK, and we’ll all get through it.’”

By:  Abby Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette