Dr. Colleen Kraft’s teenage son had a question for his mom.
“How bad is it for 40-year-olds to get the coronavirus?” he asked one night after she returned home from another long day at work.
Kraft smiled, touched.
This was her kid’s way of asking if she was going to die on him.
“I said, ‘It affects different people differently, but your mom is going to be OK because I know how to protect myself,’” she said.
Kraft is an infectious disease doctor at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, and has spent her career studying and treating communicable diseases.
But these days most of her time is spent trying to defuse the anxiety and panic of those around her.
“Everyone is worried about so much more than just their own safety,” she said. “There’s economic pressures, social pressures, people have kids home from school. I’m intersecting with a lot of stress.”
Kraft belongs to a team tasked with protecting hundreds of health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic at 11 hospitals across the Emory health care system — working to make sure they don’t get sick, or suffer from burnout.
She’s been putting in 15-hour days since February, but still she finds reasons to be hopeful. And though she respects the power of communicable diseases, she doesn’t fear them.
“We are fostering resilience, and a lot of growth,” she said. “I think there is going to be a lot of innovation that comes out of this.”
Years before the novel coronavirus pandemic, she was on the initial team of physicians that cared for patients with Ebola at the hospital.
Part of her job then was ensuring that caretakers took precautions to keep from contracting the disease themselves.
Not one of them did.
But protecting health care workers in the time of the coronavirus is different.
Between 2014 and 2016 there were just four Ebola patients at Emory Hospital and about 30 people who treated them.
“With a small group we can train everybody to be perfect,” she said.
Now her team is the whole health care system, and she has to get everyone up to speed on how to stay safe while treating others as quickly as possible.
“I’m fine,” she said. “The scary thing now is making sure everyone else is on board.”
Jill Morgan, a nurse at the hospital who worked on the Ebola team, said that Kraft’s experience and personality make her uniquely suited to this time.
“She has the ability to say, yes, this is a terrible disease but that doesn’t mean it’s panic-inducing,” Morgan said. “She’s a calm-natured, incredibly approachable human being who can tell you this is still just a respiratory pathogen.”
Kraft first got interested in infectious diseases in high school in the early ’90s — following the HIV crisis in the news, and devouring hemorrhagic-fever novels.
She describes infectious disease doctors as thinkers, not proceduralists.
“We’re not doing colonoscopies or heart catheters,” she said. “We’re detectives.”
It wasn’t until the last decade or so that the job began to include an element of danger as respiratory diseases like SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 started to reach American shores.
“Now we are on the front lines, not just caring for patients, but for health care workers who are caring for patients,” she said. “That’s the niche of infection prevention.”
On a recent morning, she met with the 25 members of the research lab that she helps direct. Her mission: to try to calm their fears.
A microbiologist who had recently recovered from COVID-19 wanted to come back to work, but his lab mates worried about their safety.
“We spent a lot of time talking about our fears and how we treat people,” Kraft said. “It was really disheartening. I’ve worked with this group for 10 years.”
Later, she found herself brainstorming with her hairstylist on how he might safely keep his salon open in the coming months.
Together they decided he could sanitize his hands before and after each haircut, have no more than two stylists working at once, stagger appointments to allow 15 minutes to clean and disinfect before the next customer, and absolutely no talking while shampooing.
“We felt that was the riskiest part,” Kraft said. “Because I’m lying back with my mouth open and he is leaning right over me.”
They also discussed invoicing clients by email so nobody would have to touch the iPad payment system and asking people who get their hair dyed to wash the color out at home.
Everywhere she goes, there is a need for her expertise. Some days she gets 20 texts in an hour from co-workers with questions.
But she also has three children, a husband, no time to exercise and very little time to rest.
And that might explain why even this cool-headed stalwart, the approachable rock of the hospital, suddenly found tears streaming down her face while hand-delivering a nasal swab to the lab for testing.
The women at the receiving desk didn’t know what to do. Dr. Kraft’s calm had helped them stay calm. As long as she wasn’t afraid, they weren’t afraid, either.
“Please don’t cry, Dr. Kraft,” they said. “You’re the one who keeps us going.”
But the tears kept coming.
“I think I just needed my excuse to say I’m tired and I don’t know if I can make it,” she said.
A colleague brought her hot chocolate and a muffin — offerings all the sweeter for the sentiments they conveyed — and Kraft pulled herself together.
“I think when you are open and vulnerable it allows opportunities for acts of kindness,” she said.
Then she was back on the floor.
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