Wife of Hamilton doctor starts support group for families of health-care workers

When Hamilton Health Sciences surgeon John Harlock got the call that he had likely been exposed to COVID-19, his wife Hayley immediately worried about the health of their three children. 

“Your mind starts to wander,” she said. 

Since the beginning of March, John has had to self-isolate twice after being in contact with a COVID-19 positive patient. 

While Harlock knows that being the spouse of a physician can be challenging, that’s become especially true amidst a global pandemic, where she worries about the virus being brought home and one of them getting sick. 

As the weeks slip by since the pandemic began, frontline workers aren’t the only ones feeling drained — their families are also burdened by the added stress. Preliminary research has already predicted that the pandemic’s front-line workers will experience lasting psychological stress, issues that are likely to impact their loved ones.

To help family members cope, Harlock launched The Flipside Life, an online support group for “essential” front-line health-care workers. 

“The reality is (that) as physicians’ spouses and partners and families, we’re the ones holding things together for the people holding things together on the front lines,” she told CBC. 

Though The Flipside Life was founded at the end of last year, the support group held its first meeting mid-March. 

“Over the years, I’ve witnessed so many families, ours included, struggle,” Harlock said. “And I think it’s pretty fair to say that many physician families are surviving but not thriving. 

Hayley Harlock started The Flipside Life at the end of last year to help loved ones of physicians connect and support each other. (Supplied by Hayley Harlock)

“I think that’s partially because physician families often feel really isolated in their experience.” 

Harlock, a former medical social worker at Sick Kids hospital in Toronto, left her job to better support her family and now hopes to help other families just like hers. 

‘People are worried for the safety of their loved one’

On March 17, Harlock scheduled The Flipside Life’s first Zoom calls. Since then, she’s moderated six calls and has had people from California and even New Zealand join in. 

From the first few calls, Harlock said people seem to be most surprised by how much the pandemic has forced them to have “hard conversations” with their partners about future care directives if they fall ill with the virus. 

Many families she knows are also struggling with changing their living situation to ensure extra precautions during COVID-19. 

Some, she says, are living apart. Others live apart while in the same house and a few others are making sure they change out of their work clothes in the garage and then immediately shower before greeting their family. 

“There’s so many worries right now about the unknown,” Harlock said, adding that with people joining in on the calls from across the world, it’s evident that their concerns are universal. 

“People are worried for the safety of their loved one.” 

As of this week, Harlock says she’s had about 10 people on each call. 

She’s currently working on scheduling more calls and ones at different times so that the groups remain intimate and allow those from various time zones to join in.  

For now, Harlock sees this as a way for her to give back to her community, though she hopes to make the service more widely available by partnering with hospitals or medical schools in the future. 

People willing to join can reach out to The Flipside Life via social media or through the website. 

“Physician families need to have support and they need to have a place to feel safe in sharing how they’re feeling,” she said. “I think we really need to hold on tight to one another.”

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