Keeping distance to keep family safe

Kevin Proctor (in background) watches his children ride their bikes up and down the driveway from the RV where he has been staying since March. 

When the coronavirus pandemic started, Kevin and Erika Proctor had to make hard choices to protect their family, and their lives haven’t been the same since. 

Kevin, a former combat medic for the U.S. Army, is an emergency room nurse for Martha Jefferson Hospital, working with COVID-19 patients. To protect their four children, one of whom is immunocompromised, they decided it would be best if he moved out of their house not far from Zion Crossroads and into the family’s RV, located several hundred feet away. 

Back in March, Erika said doctors knew little about the novel coronavirus and how it was transmitted, how it affected the body, how it would affect someone with their child’s diagnosis, and how it could be treated. 

“We certainly didn’t make that decision very lightly,” Erika said. “There were a lot of tears, but we just didn’t know enough about it [the virus] to feel comfortable with him being exposed to it and potentially bringing it home.”

Like many others, the Proctors thought the shutdown would be short-term: Kevin would stay separate from the family for a few weeks until a treatment was available, making the risk more manageable, and then things would go back to normal. The family would be together again. 

A few weeks, however, turned into eight months and counting. 

Kevin works 12.5-hour shifts, three days a week. On the days he works, he doesn’t see his children, aged 11, eight, five, and two. On his days off, however, the Proctors find ways to spend time together, albeit several feet apart. 

“He could be around us, but he always stayed about 15 feet away and masked,” Erika said. 

This summer, Kevin would read books to the children from across the driveway, walk at a distance alongside the kids as they rode their bikes, and play soccer with them. The children write notes for Kevin every day. At first, they taped them to the side of the RV, but then Kevin decided to get a little mailbox to receive their letters. The family would also share meals together outside, at a safe enough distance where Kevin could be unmasked to eat. 

Even with these interactions, it’s been difficult explaining to the children why they can see their father, but can’t hug him or get close to him. 

“It’s the same as if [Kevin] were deployed,” Erika said. “Except the kids can see him.”

One child sleeps with Kevin’s jacket every night; another sometimes wakes up at night crying for him. They bought a pillow with a photo of Kevin on it, and the children take turns sleeping with it. Erika sometimes wonders if being able to see Kevin makes it more difficult for the kids to accept the new rules.  

She said that sometimes it can feel overwhelming, helping her children cope with these changes while also figuring out how to cope with them herself. But she and Kevin agree that until there’s a treatment, it’s not worth the risk of exposing her children to the virus. 

“We’d never forgive ourselves if he got sick, and then one of the kids got sick and something happened,” Erika said. “As parents, our job is to keep them safe, and right now, the only way we know how to keep them safe is to keep them apart.” 

By June, the family knew more about the virus, but none of it was comforting. Around that time, a friend of the Proctors lost their five-year-old child to COVID-19. The child had a medical condition similar to that of their own medically-compromised child. 

Now, eight months later, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

“We just don’t know how this would interact with her system,” Erika said. “There’s no answer. We’re kind of flying blind right now because there’s not an end in sight.”

Kevin took the month of October off so he could quarantine for two weeks and take a COVID-19 test. He tested negative and was able to spend two full weeks with his family for the first time since March. 

“I’ve always felt like the time we get together has been a blessing, but having been away from him for so long and then being back together had me giddy,” Erika said. “He at all times had at least one kid in his lap and often one on his shoulders.”

Toward the end of October, Kevin went back to work, and the family restarted the arrangement. 

Social distancing has made feelings of loneliness and isolation widespread, and the Proctors are no exception. Erika said that while she knows her family isn’t the only one dealing with similar challenges, it can be easy to feel alone. 

“It feels like people are so tired of the pandemic that now they just throw caution to the wind,” she said. “It feels very alone for some of us that are still wrestling with stuff like this.” 

Aside from her family, Erika worries most about health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, caring for the ill. Now, eight months into a grueling pandemic, many are experiencing burnout and risk contracting COVID-19 every day. 

“We cannot 3D print nurses,” Erika said. “Our hope is that people will just get with the program and wear masks and socially distance so that my husband isn’t exposed every day at work.”

As winter approaches and it gets more difficult to spend time outside, the Proctor family will have to get more creative on how they will spend time together while apart. They’ll depend on the resilience that has carried them through this year to carry them into the next, while they wait for the pandemic to end, and for the family to be together again. 

“The hard truth is all we want in the world is for our families to be back together,” Erika wrote on Facebook in March. “Please help us make that possible by staying home … Our health care workers’ lives, and families, depend on it. My own little family depends on it.”

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