Mother of Four on the Frontline

Sarah Kaul skates with her daughter, Kid Reporter Kennedy Phifer, and her three younger children before the pandemic

My mother, Sarah Kaul, has been working on the frontline during the coronavirus pandemic. She is an anesthesia technician at Froedtert Hospital in Menomenee Falls, Wisconsin. She helps administer medication to patients before they undergo surgery. 

During the pandemic, which was declared on March 11, my mother has been treating patients with COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the coronavirus. Since schools and day-care centers have been closed in Wisconsin since March, my three siblings and I have been at home. 

Each morning before going to work, my mother would help my brother Mason, 8, and me with our school assignments. After she went to work, I would help take care of my sisters Harper, 4, and Peyton, 3, because their preschool program at a local childcare center has been closed.

In the early months of the pandemic, my mother’s biggest fear was being exposed to COVID-19 while working at the hospital and bringing it home to me and my siblings. Thankfully, we all have remained healthy.

I recently spoke with my mother about her career in healthcare and the challenges that she and her co-workers have faced during the pandemic, which has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in Wisconsin so far. Here are highlights of our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity. 


Sarah and Kennedy on a TV set in Wisconsin

What made you want to be an anesthesia technician? 

I’ve always been fascinated by anything in the operating room, and I love working with patients. In anesthesia, we’re the last people the patient sees before they go to sleep and the first people the patient sees upon waking up from surgery. I enjoy getting to be a part of the process, in addition to providing patient care before, during, and after the surgery. 

How do you feel about going to work during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

It was definitely stressful initially. The unknown can always be quite nerve-racking. The protocols were changing faster than we could discuss them some days. Along with the PPE [personal protective equipment] shortage, it definitely posed some challenges for healthcare workers. Especially anesthesia, as we are the ones responding to the COVID-19 patients who need to be put on the ventilator [breathing machine]. The operating room was hit extremely hard. All elective surgeries had to be canceled at the start of the outbreak for about two months because the risk was too high risk. 

Can you describe your routine at work on a typical day? 

My daily routine includes some of the following items, in no specific order: checking all anesthesia machines, filling up the gases used for the induction of anesthesia, reviewing patient charts, placing IVs, monitoring patients’ vital signs, and responding to patient emergencies. 


Sarah with her son, Mason, who completed second grade from home during the pandemic 

What is the current protocol for handling patients who have tested positive for COVID-19?

We remove everything from the operating room that is not absolutely necessary. Anything disposable in the room has to be disposed of after treating a patient with COVID-19, whether it were used or not. Everyone has to wear an N95 mask [a protective facial device that filters air particles], a mask over the N95 to protect it since we have to reuse them; shoe covers or boot covers, a surgical cap and a bouffant hat over that, a gown, double gloves and eye protection, or a face shield. There also is a specific order to don (put on) and doff (take off) the PPE to ensure that we’re not contaminating ourselves in the process.

How has caring for patients changed since the start of the pandemic?

Caring for patients has changed dramatically in many ways. Before the pandemic, we would have an entire team in the operating room getting the patient settled, positioned, hooked up to the monitors, and prepped for surgery. But we have had to minimize the amount of staff entering the room so as to preserve the PPE supply we did have. We still have to wear masks over our N95s to preserve them. 

How have you handled your job and homeschooling four children during the pandemic?

It's been a challenge. I’m extremely thankful that my employer offered as much flexibility as possible, allowing me to switch to a second shift. Being home in the morning allowed me to get the kids breakfast and to do a few hours of schoolwork, versus coming home at 4:30 p.m. and attempting to start the school day.

My oldest daughter [Kennedy] was a huge help throughout. Since she is a self-starter, she didn’t require much help. My son, Mason, who was in the second grade, needed a lot more help. However, his teachers were phenomenal and would call, FaceTime, and Zoom to give weekly motivation to both of us.

Photos courtesy of the author