Husband and wife emergency docs share their family’s story of fear, survival and renewal in their fight to beat COVID-19

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Svetlana Zakharchenko came to this country from Ukraine at the age of 14. Her husband, Carlos Sanchez, arrived from Peru when he was 16. Neither spoke a word of English.
Yet each went on to earn medical degrees and to serve this country as emergency physicians.

Neither ever imagined that this devotion to sick patients could threaten their lives. But it did.

And COVID-19 was the culprit.

Carlos, 51, barely survived the infection, caught while caring for patients in the very early stages of the pandemic in and around New York City. Svetlana, 42, fared better when she fell ill with coronavirus this fall. But the memories for each of confronting death, not only for themselves but for their patients and colleagues, fills their minds to this very day.

This is the story of how this Fort Lee, N.J., couple survived as a family – and were helped by others – and how that narrative may serve to inspire us today.

Carlos Sanchez, DO, is a general practitioner with CityMD urgent care in New York City. He contracted COVID-19 in March 2020, after working 14- to 16-hour days during  the outbreak’s first few weeks. He spent six days at home, sequestered in the family’s basement, until his symptoms worsened to the point that, barely able to walk, he drove himself to Hackensack University Medical Center. There, he spent another six days in COVID isolation, followed by another two weeks at home, where he suffered long-term residual effects including loss of smell and severe fatigue.

His wife, Svetlana Zakharchenko, DO, emergency ultrasound director at the Hackensack’s Emergency Trauma Department, recalls at that time:  “I had so many fears. I thought I was going to be a widow.”

“I did feel like I was going to die at one point,” Carlos remembers. “I broke down on my third day at the hospital … of losing weight, with no appetite, just lying in bed. I suffered psychological effects from having no sleep, and then you see what’s going on around you … TV reports of so many dying.”

Svetlana says she remains shaken, fearful, with nightmares, images of so much death – including that of a close ED colleague – in what she likens to PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – on the battlefield.

“As doctors, we felt very separate from the rest of the population. Most people were seeing COVID on the news, but we were seeing it face-to-face,” Svetlana says. And, with Carlos, she was living it at home. That’s when she found relief, along with her Emergency Department colleagues, in “Coping with COVID Talks,” a weekly support group run by Hackensack Meridian Health’s behavioral health team.

The strategies Svetlana learned in those sessions — including the use of “mindfulness,” which stresses awareness of one’s present environment and emotions in order to avoid a downward spiral over past or future circumstances — have helped her manage COVID-related anxiety both at work and at home.

Carlos says he has learned valuable life lessons from his experience: “I want to spend more time with family. I’m readjusting life’s priorities, making changes. Going to the park, simple pleasures. Afternoons with kids, instead of constantly working 12 to 15 hour shifts. Things like that. Give them a bath, brush their teeth, read them a story. Waking up in the morning on a weekend and making them pancakes.”

Svetlana feels much the same, and again credits her ability to seek the counsel not only of “our behavioral health specialists at Hackensack but the common experiences and shared sentiments of my colleagues for enabling me, my husband and my family to battle through this horribly difficult period.”