You could say that Mona Tareen is better equipped than most to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Working in palliative care means that she’s used to handling the toughest situations of all, and the hard conversations are simply part of her day-to-day. But these are unprecedented times, even for a doctor that faced the H1N1 crisis in the States just over a decade ago. Now a frontline health worker in the UAE, she battles the virus while the population stays at home – and when she’s finished, there’s home schooling to tackle. The biggest problems right now? Helping save lives and teaching her twin daughters French.
We’re in unprecedented times right now, but what’s a normal day like for you?
A typical day starts at 8am. I’ll check in with my patients or follow up with new ones. I’m in my scrubs – everybody at the hospital has to wear them now. Surgical masks, of course, too. After my rounds there’s outpatients pain management, which is part of what I have to do with the oncology department. That work has actually reduced, which I think is due to people being a little nervous about coming to the hospital right now. Time-wise I’m kind of lucky. Normally I’m home by 5:15.
How about your direct involvement with tackling COVID-19?
When it comes to the COVID units – the hospital actually has two – I only follow the haematology and oncology patients, not those from general medicine. Those units are a little bit scarier, at least visually – when you go in everybody is wearing a hazmat suit. But it’s just part of what we have to do right now.
Have you ever experienced anything similar to the current crisis?
I was actually in the States when H1N1, the pandemic in 2009, hit. It’s strange because we were scared of what was happening, but we took it in our stride. We knew it was a part of the job, part of the oath we took. I remember that moment as being tough, really tough...but this is far worse, just because of how quickly and easily this virus is transmitted.
Do you actively worry about contracting COVID-19 when you’re at work?
If you’d asked me this when it started to happen in the UAE, I would have said yes – I had severe bronchitis at the time. Looking at it now, I’m not scared to see those patients. As physicians we just get used to it. We all have the same risk, the same exposure. We’re managing. If you ask any of us we’ll give you the same answer. We didn’t take this job for the money. It has to be in your heart. It has to be a part of who you are...we’re all in this together.
Is your attitude different to how you approached H1N1?
Well, in 2009 I was on my own, didn’t have children and I didn’t worry about the exposure. Fast forward to now and it’s paramount to me to do everything I can to avoid bringing the virus home with me and exposing my daughters to it.
How do you cope with such high mortality rates? It must be incredibly tough to handle.
Part of my background is palliative, hospice care and geriatrics, so I’m trained to deal with end of life and handle chronic illnesses and complexity. For me, it’s not unusual to have an elderly patient on 20 different medications and with heart failure and cancer and dementia. So, there is a familiarity to it for me. The death of a patient is never easy, of course, but we know that we try as hard as we possibly can with everybody.
How do you handle it on a personal level?
Knowing my kids are ok, that’s what gets me through this. I have twin girls – Zhalai and the Zafash – who are seven, and spending time with them helps me most. I also keep a diary. I started on March 21 and I’m writing about what I go through every day. But more than just being a record, I’m using it to make memories for my children. I don’t want this to sound pessimistic or morbid, but being in palliative medicine there’s just a mentality of getting things in order. People might not want to talk about this, but it’s important. So, it’s a diary and I write about things like, “What I wish for my daughters’ 16th birthday or for the day they get married.”
Do your children ask about what’s happening right now?
I think they understand. We’re keeping busy, trying to do all the online learning and taking it one day at a time. I don’t know how other kids are handling it, but I think mine know that there’s a problem that will one day go away, and that we will then all get back to normal.
And what do they think about your job?
They think it’s just what I do.They get a kick out of me because I de-robe straight away when I get home. I don’t wait to go upstairs in my scrubs, I just throw my clothes straight in the washer. They think that’s funny. They get frustrated when they can’t hug me. I tell them that I can’t right now, but every now and then they’ll spring one on me. They’ll run up and grab me and say, “I got you.” I’m living for those moments... my euphoria seems to last a week when that happens.
Is it tough as a working parent?
Well, I think I’m the only physician in the WhatsApp parents’ group, and I do feel a little Mumma Guilt for sure. I only have about 90 minutes each evening to do the work with my kids, and we can only really go through the basic subjects... but we’re planning on learning French and Arabic, too. Full disclosure – and I really hope nobody from the parents’ group reads this – but I have ignored a lot of the messages. They’re just constantly pinging and I can’t keep up. I just want to survive this apocalypse!
So, how are we going to get through this, Mona?
Well, I think that the UAE is dealing with the outbreak very well. But we have to continue doing what we’re doing until we come up with a vaccination. This virus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and physical distancing will slow it down. People need to understand that it’s not about them. It’s about the risk of exposing somebody else, who could be vulnerable, to the infection. Wear a mask, it’s not going to hurt you.
Is it frustrating to see people not wearing masks, or practicing social distancing?
I can’t really say what I think about that as you may not be able to print it. But yes, it’s frustrating. Sometimes people come in and test positive for COVID-19, but when we tell them that they have to be quarantined they don’t want to do it. It’s frustrating. You have to do what’s right.
Has working on the frontline through the crisis taught you anything about yourself?
I think it’s taught me to appreciate every moment. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because the things we thought were a problem in the past, well...chances are they really weren’t. I’ve learned to appreciate every day as a blessing, too. So, when my friends call me from the States and they ask how I’m doing, I say, “I’m ok. It’s another day, thank god!”
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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MONA TAREEN (MD, Palliative Hospitalist and Geriatric Medicine Consultant, Cancer Care Center at the American Hospital, Dubai)
Photography by Prod Antzoulis