“Stronger together” became the unofficial motto of the team members in the west central region of IU Health during the start of the pandemic. Working together for the common good builds a solid foundation. For some team members it has an even deeper meaning.
Several team members share not only their work, but their home life as well. How does a pandemic that affects so much of your work life play out at home? In honor of Valentine’s Day, several couples share their stories.
Ashley and Derek Kunkle
Ashley and Derek Kunkle work together at IU Health Arnett Cancer Center. When they met, Ashley was a medical assistant in the infusion center. Derek had joined the radiation oncology team as a radiation therapist overseeing radiation treatments for patients. Even though they worked in the same building, they didn’t get to know each other until the birthday party of Ashley’s good friend, who happened to work with Derek. Today, the couple has been married for ten years and has two beautiful daughters.
Ashley is now the practice manager for Oncology, and Derek is the practice manager for Radiation Oncology. Some days the two may not interact at the office because they are on opposite sides of the building. Other days they may need to collaborate on patient care. Patients involved with cancer care often spend time on both sides of the building. The patients get to know team members and team members get to know them. Ashley admits the team gets attached to the patients, “Even when you have a rule to not bring work home, you do, because they have become part of your family.”
So how do you manage to lead a team, provide support and continue to support each other when you work in such an emotional environment? Derek shared an example that still resonates with both.
Derek and Ashley were in her office on the infusion side, working together on a new software management system, because, as Derek says, two heads are better than one. They were alerted that a patient in the infusion center had become unresponsive. Team members were performing CPR when they walked in the infusion suite. Quickly assessing the scene, Derek took over chest compressions to relieve the current team member, while Ashley worked with the clinical team to ensure all code steps were properly followed and completed. They both spent the rest of the day consoling and supporting their team members.
“The situation was intense and not something we commonly encounter at the Cancer Center. We reacted quickly and did what we needed to do without too much verbal communication between each other, at this point we can look at each other and tell what the other one is thinking. When we finally got home, we were able to provide support for each other without having to relive the day all over again,” shares Derek.
Both agree that working together makes it easier to support and understand each other.
“We made a decision years ago to not take our work home with us, but the pandemic has changed everything,” adds Ashley. “It is nice to have a spouse who understands what you do and why you do it. The pandemic does not care about cancer. Cancer did not go away because of the pandemic. Like everyone else, we have had to figure out to continue to provide the best care we can in new ways, to keep our patients safe. And sometimes that means you don’t make it home for dinner. You have to rely on your spouse to pick up the slack and not feel neglected. Having a spouse that understands the situation makes things much easier.”
Derek agrees, adding, “You have to separate your work and your marriage to some degree. Especially for the kids’ sake. But at this point, I think the girls could run the Cancer Center.”
Both agree that it is hard to shut off work, especially during a pandemic. The family tries to make dinner a priority. After homework they play games and try to leave the TV off, unless Purdue or IU is playing basketball. Yes, they are a house divided.
Work will sneak back into the conversation once the girls are in bed. Some days are busy for them both, so they need to collaborate at home. “Not every practice manager can ask a fellow practice manager questions while one is in the shower,” jokes Derek.
Advice from the Kunkle’s on making relationships work: It is hard to find the balance, but sometimes you have to draw the line in the sand and say this is our time. You only have so much time with your children living at home and you can never get that time back. You must have time to take care of yourself and each other. Someday the kids will be grown and you will be retired—leaving just the two of you.
Star and Tom Meyer
Thomas Meyer, MD, is an infectious disease physician with IU Health Arnett. Infectious disease specialists are the top experts when it comes to diagnosing and treating a variety of diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, including COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has not been good for the work-life balance,” shares Meyer. “The past two years have been the busiest in my 25-year career since medical school and residency. It is just heartbreaking when I barely get home before bedtime and one of the boys will make a joke about my not being home.”
Those boys are a 6-year-old and 8-year-old twins, ages where they still think their parents are pretty cool.
The person Meyer appreciates most is his wife Star. He freely admits that he “married out of his league,” as comedian Ralphie May pointed out at a concert the pair attended early on in their marriage.
Star Meyer also works at IU Health Arnett as the administrative director overseeing Cardiology, Cardiac Surgery, Hospitalists, Pediatrics, Neonatology and OB/GYN services. The two met at the hospital when Tom made his rounds on patients and Star worked as a nurse. As her career progressed and she moved into management, Tom realized he missed seeing her.
They were married 12 years ago in Hawaii. Two children each from previous marriages plus their three younger boys adds up to seven children. That is a lot of juggling of school schedules, sports and family time. The Meyers divide and conquer—he cooks and handles bedtime; she maintains the laundry and helps with homework. When Tom must work late, Star says the children all complain about her cooking.
When the pandemic hit, schedules had to be adjusted as schools went to e-learning. On top of her role at IU Health, Star was finishing law school. Star and Tom can work from home at various times, depending on patient schedules. They get a lot of help from nearby family and are very appreciative that one of their older children can drive.
The pandemic has certainly brought forward the importance of their healthcare roles home. “We are pretty straightforward about COVID-19 and what is happening. The kids understand that we are working hard and want to see people get better. One of our younger boys is a strict rule follower, so I am sure he is the mask and hand washing police at school,” shares Tom.
Tom readily admits that Star tries to get him to unplug. Not an easy task. Being a nurse, Star understands the clinical nature of her husband. She understands why he feels the need to check on patients late at night. Why he keeps up on the latest developments and medical journals. Why he is a perfectionist when it comes to sharing his knowledge with his peers.
“Doctors do a lot of work behind the scenes. It means a lot to me when someone reaches out to voice their appreciation,” shares Tom.
“It means a lot to me too,” adds Star. “Tom is my hero.”
Their advice on marriage is, “Don’t lose sight of each other. Make sure you spend some quality time with each other.”
And how will they celebrate Valentine’s Day? Star says they are not big proponents of Valentine’s Day; however, they do like to celebrate their anniversary, which is February 22, because Tom likes the number two. This year, they are taking that delayed 10-year anniversary trip back to Hawaii.
Sabeena and Joseph Hubbard
Sabeena Hubbard, DO, FAAP, is a pediatric hospitalist at IU Health Arnett Hospital. Joe Hubbard, DO, practices Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.
Sabeena and Joe Hubbard met in medical school, at Chicago College of Osteopathic of Medicine. Joe was in his second year and Sabeena was a first year. The pair was introduced at a bowling social by a mutual friend. After that meeting, they would run into each other in the library, occasionally studying together then grabbing coffee.
The couple has been married for 17 years. They were married just after Sabeena graduated medical school and Joe finished his internship. They had to find a unique window in which they could squeeze in a wedding and honeymoon before their residencies started in East Lansing, Michigan. Post residency, the couple spent a year in Florida for Joe to complete his fellowship in sports medicine. They welcomed their first son while in Florida.
The family moved to Indiana because it was relatively close to home, which is Chicago. Both doctors decided to join the IU Health Arnett family. “Prior to moving here, we had a history of always working at two competing hospitals. It was nice to be at the same hospital,” shares Sabeena.
Three more boys have joined the Hubbard family. All three were delivered by the same doctor, on the same floor where Sabeena works. Life with four boys is busy. For several years, Sabeena worked part-time while raising the children.
The pandemic changed everything. Sabeena went full-time to care for patients at the hospital. Elective surgeries and in-person appointments were put on hold for orthopedics, which gave Joe the opportunity to be home more with the children. “This was certainly a role reversal for us, but the kids loved having dad home and homeschooling. The pandemic has brought different stressors that have changed over time for us,” shares Sabeena.
“I think when you work and train in the field of medicine you are used to making sacrifices, and that is something that never really ends. We continually make sacrifices to flex and accommodate each other’s work needs and our family needs. When there is an emergency and we have to drop everything to leave our child’s birthday party or miss a concert or game, we just do it and the family understands,” explains Sabeena.
“I think there’s definitely a better level of understanding between us since we are both physicians. Our patients are a priority, and our children are a priority. We try to support each other when the other is having a difficult day or various challenges. Trying to figure out work-life balance is always tricky, but we are constantly working on that. It’s an ever-evolving situation—especially in these pandemic times.”
The Hubbard’s share their advice for other couples who work in the same field: make time for each other. Even if it’s just a quick lunch here and there. Rarely do the pair’s paths cross at the hospital. When schedules allow, they love to take a quick lunch break together in the Banyan Café.
And their plans for this Valentine’s Day? “We love to cook together so we typically make an extra special meal with the kids and celebrate.”
Megan and Matt Schafer
Megan and Matt Schafer are both nurses at IU Health Arnett Hospital who believe that both being in healthcare makes their relationship stronger. “I think for us as a couple in the same career field, we are able to relate to each other more because we know the basics of what we both go through at work,” shares Megan. “We are able to discuss scenarios and review how we could do things better for patient care and in general be a shoulder to lean on when we need it the most.”
Megan and Matt Schafer met through a mutual friend who worked with Matt on the Progressive Care Unit (PCU) and went to nursing school with Megan. Even though the pair attended different nursing schools, they spent a lot of time together studying and sharing their passion for nursing.
The couple has been married for seven years. They adopted their son in 2019 and welcomed twin girls in 2020.
The couple rarely works the same shift, let alone in the same unit. Megan started her career in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. As their family grew, she moved to Home Care and then to the IU Health Arnett Cancer Center as an infusion nurse.
During her time in Home Care, Megan worked with many COVID-19 patients who had been released from the hospital into the Hospital at Home program. She says, “It was hard to see patients who previously had very few health problems go from being independent to hardly being able to get up from a chair without difficulty breathing.”
Throughout the pandemic Matt worked supplemental on PCU and as a full-time associate administrator. In these roles he has both experienced and witnessed the strain the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers. Megan says that she has noticed the emotional toll her husband has carried through this pandemic.
Being able to understand is the best way Megan knows to support Matt. “What many non-healthcare partners may not realize is nurses can’t just leave whenever their hour is done; the patient must be taken care of, there are many times when we do not get lunch breaks, get enough to eat or drink or use the restroom enough. Not to mention the emotional toll patient care has on nurses who may have done all they could, and it still wasn’t enough to save their patient. Nursing is truly a field where you must be in it to grasp it fully.”
One change that Megan has made because of the pandemic is how she communicates. “We don’t realize the impact of wearing masks regarding communication has had for hearing impaired patients. This has impacted me to try and find other ways to increase communication and make sure that even though I am wearing a lot of extra equipment, my patients feel like they were important to me.”
“It’s fun to learn from each other. When we come home and tell each other about our days, there are aspects of the other person’s area that we can learn from. I have noticed times where Megan has told me something about caring for a neonate or a patient with cancer that I have then used in my current job. Megan is the most compassionate nurse I know, and it makes me proud to listen to my wife as an expert in an area of nursing that I know very little about,” added Matt.
Advice the Schafers share with other couples in the nursing field: Megan says, “Be there for each other, listen to each other and talk about your day. It seems that when I have talked to my husband about my day or things that didn’t go well, I often feel better, and he can shed light on areas that I didn’t think of. Remind each other that although you are nurses, you are also human.” Matt adds, “Compassion fatigue is a real thing for nurses. Knowing that, we must make the extra effort to have some left for each other at the end of the day.”
As for Valentine’s Day, it is hard for couples to celebrate when they don’t work the same shift, but the Schafers will find a way. This year, the couple is attending a Valentine’s Day dinner hosted by their church where they will have the chance to get to know other couples in attendance.
Bryan and Sarah Norkus
Roll with the punches is the advice Sarah Norkus gives on making life work during the pandemic.
Sarah Norkus, RN, is the manager for Perioperative Services at IU Health Arnett Hospital. Bryan Norkus, MD, is faculty and a family physician with the IU School of Medicine Arnett Family Medicine Residency. The couple started dating their senior year of high school and have been married for twelve years. They have three boys: a 7-year-old and 2-year-old twins. A little sister is expected in August.
Bryan’s family medicine practice is in the medical office connected to the hospital, but that does not mean the two see each other often. Occasionally, they can grab a quick lunch together.
“We both understand the stress and uncertainty of healthcare right now and do our best to roll with the punches,” shares Sarah.
Like with every busy parent, the pandemic has brought on new challenges for the family. “It has been difficult with the quarantines and shutdowns to find childcare for the kids. We have had to figure out who can work from home or which grandparent can stay for a few days,” adds Sarah.
Bryan’s advice for other couples who work in the same field: “Try not to ‘talk shop’ too much at home. It is important to unplug from work and unwind at home. And enjoy your family.”
Noor Bakroun and Mustafa Hussain
2021 was a big year for Noor Bakroun, MD, and Mustafa Hussain, MD. Both completed their residency at IU School of Medicine Arnett Family Medicine Residency. Both began establishing their new family medicine practices with IU Health Arnett. And together they welcomed their beautiful daughter Leia.
The couple met at Saba University School of Medicine, which is on the Caribbean Island Saba. They were on a committee together where she was the president and he was the treasurer. Bakroun says once she saw him protect a woman from an angry animal, she was smitten. They were married in 2018.
When the pandemic started in late 2019, Bakroun and Hussain were in their second year of residency moving into their third year. “The pandemic has been overwhelming for all healthcare workers and I have to send my respect to everybody involved in caring for sick patients. Initially it was the fear of the unknown, but our residency was a new program, and we learned how to quickly adapt to change. This really helped us use similar techniques to adapt to the new pandemic,” shares Hussain.
Bakroun offers more specific details. “The pandemic affected us in positive and negative ways during our residency. One positive was learning all about virtual technology: the relief of knowing that patients have the opportunity to be treated and seen even if they are unable to physically make it to their visit, the ability for us to spend more quality time with family as well, and more. I can also say that didactics becoming virtual was beneficial for me as a listener and presenter.”
Of course, there were downsides as well: “Technical difficulties, canceled rotations, limited access to certain specialty offices for our electives, difficulty meeting residency requirements to allow for timely graduation, not having enough information about the virus to answer certain patient concerns and fear of contracting the virus,” shares Bakroun.
On a personal level, the pandemic also limited the number of guests allowed at their residency graduation in July. It also limited the number of guests allowed to visit when Leia was born. The family of three wanted to travel so the extended family could meet Leia before the couple began their new practices. “For travel, the COVID-19 tests that we needed were difficult, since baby Leia had to get one, too. All the extra paperwork and vaccine passport requirements made it difficult to travel to the Middle East and then to return back to U.S. unfortunately,” explains Bakroun.
The couple is now ready for their next adventure as family medicine physicians. “We had a great experience working together as residents in the same program and wanted to continue this trend as it makes us stronger, closer and allows for great discussions,” says Hussain.
Bakroun admits that she was initially hesitant to start a new career in the same location as her husband, “I thought it would interfere with our personal life and that our personal life would interfere with work life, but after going through residency together, I would not change a thing. We had a great experience thankfully. We learned a lot from each other, got to spend time with each other despite our busy schedules and we only needed one car and one place to live. There are many other advantages, but I realize that it is different for everyone in terms of preference and expectations. Every couple needs to do what is best for them. I have not tried working away from my husband, so I am not sure what that feels like yet, but so far I am having a great time working alongside Dr. Hussain.”
Their best advice for couples? Listen to each other’s concerns and emotions. Be there to help carry the weight of each other during times of stress or when feeling overwhelmed.
The family is planning a quick trip to Canada to spend Valentine’s Day with family—unless Hussain has a surprise up his sleeve.
Pandemic or not, we are stronger together.