On the Frontline

Discover the personal sacrifices of an ER nurse — and the unexpected blessings she found along the way

The coronavirus outbreak showcases the tireless work and personal sacrifices made by our essential workers — especially the medical workers who put themselves in harm’s way to serve others. It’s hard enough to imagine the amount of stress on a nurse like Erin Mungo, who works in the emergency room at St. Joseph’s/Candler. Then add to the mix a spouse who is also an ER nurse and a blended family of seven children, ages ranging from 6 to 15, and what do you get? The answer might surprise you: A beautiful thing.

SAVANNAH MAGAZINE: Tell me about the moment you realized the coronavirus was coming and, being nurses, you and your husband Andy would have to isolate from your children. (Four are Erin’s children from a previous marriage and three are Andy’s. Both share equal custody with their former spouses.)

ERIN MUNGO: My husband’s former wife was the first person to voice a concern about the kids. It was right before St. Patrick’s Day, and we were winding down our week together, and the kids would return the following week as usual. We were just starting to see cases of COVID- 19 appearing in Georgia, but nothing significant in our area yet. It caught Andy and me off guard, because we hadn’t really wrapped our heads around how bad it could be. It took us about 12 hours to digest her concern and agree she might have a point, so we determined that it would be best for the kids to remain with their other parents for at least two weeks. We weren’t so much afraid for all of our children to get sick; we were afraid for them to get it from us and give it to others, especially Vivian, my 6-year-old. She was my primary concern because she has Type I diabetes, and it can be such a wildcard when you get any kind of viral illness. I told the kids, even if you think the virus won’t affect you, if you bring this home to your sister, you could kill her. I put it in very plain language.

SM: But two weeks turned out to be optimistic.

MUNGO: Right. We ended up being apart for nearly 9 weeks. We’d FaceTime our kids, which is already typical for us when they’re with their other parents, and we’d see them from afar. Andy would go over to his former wife’s house and sit in the yard and talk to the kids through the window. I’d drop things off on my former husband’s front porch for the kids. I’d sit by my car, and they would stand on the second-floor balcony and we’d talk.

SM: I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been.

MUNGO: One of the weirdest moments for me was the first time that I dropped stuff off and I could see them, but I had to leave without touching them. I’m not even sure what words describe it best, but as a mother it was very unnatural. I was thinking, I’m their mom and I’m walking away.

SM: How did the kids handle it?

MUNGO: The younger kids had a harder time when it came to missing us, but they didn’t question our decision as much as the older kids did. The hardest thing was trying to make them understand why we thought isolating from them was the best decision without them feeling like we were pushing them away. The kids’ other parents were really supportive — they carried the torch. They did all the homeschooling and dealt with all the complaining and fighting. I really feel like I owe them. They kept everyone safe and let Andy and I focus on what we needed to do at work.

SM: Were there any silver linings?

MUNGO: Seeing patients go home is very rewarding. That, and having the support and appreciation from the community because it makes our days so much better. Every single day, someone was bringing meals to us. I didn’t pack a lunch for two months. When you walk out at the end of the day and there are balloons all around the ambulance, you can’t help but smile and think, OK, we did something good today.

SM: How did you decide it was the right time to have your kids come home?

MUNGO: There were so many unknowns in the beginning, but as the weeks went by, we started to know a little bit more and get a better picture of the disease distribution and prevalence, and so we were willing to tolerate more risk and let the kids come back home. There’s never going to be a silver bullet. There’s not going to be a vaccine for a long time, and it’s not going away, so we’re going to have to figure out how to live with it and how much risk we’re willing to accept and tolerate.

SM: What was that reunion like?

MUNGO: When I pulled in her dad’s driveway, my youngest came barreling down the stairs, and it erased all of those odd feelings that I’d had. I instantly felt so much better. I thought, this is my relationship with my children. This feels like home again.

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