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Dr. Reed Siemienuk, seen here at the hospital where he works in Hamilton, Ont. and his wife, Dr. Anushka Weeraratne, at the Toronto hospital where she works, have decided to live separately for a while to avoid the risk of infecting each other with COVID-19.

Chris Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Anushka Weeraratne had just started her first year of medical school in 2010 when Reed Siemieniuk, a gangly second year, swooped in. Drawn in by her smile, he asked the aspiring pediatrician out on a date.

In between their studies at McMaster University, she agreed, and late one night outside a shawarma joint in downtown Hamilton, their love story began.

“That’s where the magic happened,” she said, giggling. And, “it stuck.”

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From then on, the pair has been inseparable – until now.

Struggling to keep up with the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, the now-married couple made the difficult decision to live apart for a while. In an effort to do everything they can to be available to work on the front lines, fighting against the coronavirus, they are living in separate places to avoid the risk of infecting each other.

'Our health care system is not built to deal with a pandemic like this,' says Dr. Reed Siemienuk pictured here walking to the Hamilton General Hospital where he works, in Hamilton, Ont., on April 1, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Now living in an Airbnb apartment in Hamilton, Dr. Siemieniuk anticipates not being able to see his wife, the person whom he looks to most for emotional support, for another four months.

“It’s just not worth the risk,” said the 32-year-old clinical researcher, who focuses on infectious diseases. “I want to save lives.”

“Hospitals in Ontario have been working well overcapacity since I started in medicine,” said Dr. Siemieniuk, who works in the internal medicine wards of Hamilton Health Sciences. (Ontario Premier Doug Ford has used the term “hallway health care” to describe the overcrowding in hospitals.)

Without the room to expand, and with a shortage of health care workers, “our health care system is not built to deal with a pandemic like this,” he said.

Paired with the added shortage of protective equipment, doctors are being forced to place themselves in compromising situations.

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“Our hospitals are asking us to ration masks and use surgical masks that might not fully protect us from contracting the virus,” Dr. Siemieniuk said. “We’re saving what little N95 masks we have for a complete disaster situation, but at the same time, it’s putting all of us at more risk.”

Health care workers have started to look anywhere they can to find protective gear on their own, because “we’re worried that our hospitals and governments won’t be able to protect us,” he said.

Meanwhile, babies are still being born.

“My biggest concern is being exposed to [the virus] and then taking it into the hospital and seeing pregnant moms and newborn babies and not realizing that I’ve been exposed to it yet,” said Dr. Weeraratne, who works as a pediatrician at the Scarborough Health Network in Toronto.

Dr. Anushka Weeraratne, pictured here outside her home in Toronto, on April 3, 2020, says living apart from her spouse to avoid cross-infection of the coronavirus has been challenging.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

She said this is what they signed up for when they decided to become doctors, “but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

“It’s tough to not have the person you talk to about all this stuff available to you,” she said.

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As the hospitals become a more stressful place to be, filled with constant nervous and anxious energy, “you want that support at home,” she said.

While the whole world becomes more creative in how they’re communicating with one another, the Toronto-based couple is using some of those strategies, too.

By calling and texting each other after shifts to debrief, or meeting for group hangouts with friends over the Zoom video-conferencing service, they are trying to maintain some type of normalcy.

“But honestly, it’s so lonely,” Dr. Siemieniuk said. “We’re such social creatures – we need human contact.”

Willing to ride this out for as long as it takes, Dr. Weeraratne said that, more than anyone else that she knows, her husband feels compelled to be available on the front lines.

“He just wants to make the world a better place for everyone,” she said. “But that’s just him, that’s always been him and that’s why he’s doing it in the first place.”

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