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He's Immunocompromised. She's An ER Doctor. They Are Living Together, Apart

Wendy and Robert Jackson have been married for 15 years and now are social distancing at home.
Brian Hong
Wendy and Robert Jackson have been married for 15 years and now are social distancing at home.

While most people are practicing social distancing in public, some are doing it under the same roof.

Wendy Jackson, 62, is a pediatric emergency room physician at Howard County General Hospital in Maryland. Her husband, Robert Jackson, 71, is an audio engineer and executive director of a nonprofit. He is severely immunocompromised because of a kidney transplant four years ago.

Because Wendy runs the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus at work, the couple made the difficult decision to live together ... 6 feet apart.

The couple sat down in their basement — which Wendy affectionately calls "Robert's man cave" — in North Laurel, Md., to talk about their situation.

"We pretty much exist in the same house, but at least 6 or 8 feet apart," says Wendy.

They are sleeping in two different bedrooms, using two bathrooms, and trying not to spend much time together in the same room. Robert admits that initially, he was resistant to the idea of social distancing at home, but Wendy ultimately convinced him.

"I am very fortunate to be married to a physician, because definitely when I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do, I'm being told, and I'm made aware of it," he says, laughing.

Wendy and Robert both say that it's very difficult to stay 6 feet apart from a spouse of 15 years. When Robert asks Wendy how the lack of physical intimacy is affecting her, she says it's "pretty rough."

"What I miss most is just the human touch. A lot of things are better transmitted through touch than through talk," she says.

She tries to create intimacy by doing little things for Robert, like "fix your favorite meals, or spray your pillow with lavender."

When Wendy asks Robert if he was fearful of contracting COVID-19, he says no, but he understands that he must be careful.

"Fear is not the word I would use," Robert says. "But at the same time, I'm not naive."

As a result of his kidney transplant, Robert must take a daily regimen of immunosuppressing medications to keep his body from rejecting the new kidney. That means his immune system would have difficulty fighting the coronavirus.

When Wendy comes home from work at the hospital, she changes in the garage, leaves her clothes in a bag, and showers immediately. She constantly cleans their three-story townhouse and does all the grocery shopping and other necessary errands so that Robert doesn't have to interact with the public.

The possibility of bringing the virus home weighs heavily on Wendy. Sometimes she breaks down in tears before leaving for work in the morning.

"My fear is infecting you. Even if I wasn't showing any symptoms at all. It's always in the back of my mind because it's such a distinct possibility," she tells Robert.

When the pandemic first hit, Wendy says she considered retiring after 37 years caring for sick kids.

"I just don't want to lose you," she tells Robert.

But ultimately, she decided to keep working, and be extremely careful.

"I just decided not to be fearful, but to have faith instead," she says. Robert supports her decision.

Going forward, Wendy says, they are "just taking it one day at a time."

This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, with editing by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro, Nellie Gilles and Joe Richman. To hear more stories from the Hunker Down Diaries series, subscribe to the Radio Diaries Podcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah Kate Kramer