Moms are strong — that’s no news flash. Also, doctors are strong — every day and especially now, in the midst of a pandemic. What is possibly stronger than a mom who is also an ER doctor working on the frontlines? Step aside, Hercules, and meet Dr. Michelle Wan, an emergency room doctor in Atlanta, whose breastfeeding photo is giving us life, just when we need it most.
“The unchartered waters of this global pandemic are overwhelming and at times, I feel discouraged,” Wan wrote in a Facebook post on Monday, sharing the professional portrait by Karen Bagley of Significant Moment Photography, which was taken two weeks before the coronavirus reached Georgia. “Then I see this picture of my daughter, and I feel strong. I gave her life and still, I am sustaining her life. She helps me see my power.”
She shared the post for friends and colleagues, but had no idea it would go viral. Maybe that’s because she’s not just a superhero but also a mom trying to get through every day the best she can.
“You just have no idea what’s going to come through the door,” Wan told SheKnows of life as an ER doctor. “Those of us who really enjoy emergency medicine — that’s part of what we enjoy is the variety of what we see. But when you’re pregnant, carrying your baby and just coming back to work, I think your whole perspective on that chaotic environment changes a little bit.”
After having daughter Amel, she had only just returned to the ER after maternity leave in January when COVID turned an already stressful job into a scary one. She felt the impact of the pandemic even before the first cases came to her hospital. Like most breastfeeding mothers, she found that anxiety put a big crimp in her pumping routine.
“When I started to see what was happening in Italy, then in New York and Seattle, I was freaking out, and I couldn’t get my milk to let down,” she said.
But now, as she saves lives every day from the deadly virus, Wan has found a workaround: She feeds Amel in the morning, and pumps in the car before work. When she leaves the hospital, she tries to “decontaminate” herself as much as possible before pumping in the car again.
This routine almost led to trouble once, when she decided to drive home while using a hands-free pumping bra.
“I got pulled over, and the cop was like, ‘What are you doing?'” Wan told us, laughing. “I’m crying and saying, ‘Because it’s a pandemic and I can’t get a letdown and I was engorged and I was worried about mastitis so I just did it while I was driving, I’m sorry!'”
The stunned officer let her go.
Her fight against the coronavirus doesn’t end when she pulls up to her home. She first has to strip down her clothing, run to the shower, and hope she can wash her day and any remnants of the virus off of her before seeing her baby again — if she’s awake. Sometimes, she even throws out the hard-earned milk she pumped, fearing she somehow contaminated that too.
She credits Amel, husband Kyle, her friends and her faith with helping her focus on the positive in life and get back out there every day.
“The alternative is to just give up and to not to not be hopeful, and I just will not resign myself to that,” she told us. That sentiment echoes what she expressed on Facebook.
“I am powerful because daily, I am saving lives in the ER,” she wrote. “In the next moment, I remove my white coat and scrubs, walk into my home, shower the stress, sadness, and debris of my ER shift off of my body, slip into my other set of powers and breastfeed this growing, beautiful little human. Our cuddles are the best. It puts my workday into perspective. Her smile makes this exhausted mommy keep going.”
When local news station 11 Alive caught up with Wan and her family this week, she also displayed her vulnerability (like all the best superheroes we know).
“It’s hard to be essential when all we want to do is stay home with our babies and our families,” Wan said. “I have had moments of pretty paralyzing fear and anxiety, just worrying about — is this the day I go to work and come home and infect my family?”
We’ve heard the horrible stories of ex-husbands taking away custody of their children from their doctor ex-wives on the COVID-19 frontlines. So, we’re also giving a shout to Kyle, who told 11 Alive he’s cut back on his own work to take care of Amel while his wife saves lives.
But yeah, back to Amel’s mama.
“This beauty is a powerhouse in the medical field and an AMAZING mother!” photographer Bagley wrote when she shared the photo back in April. “She handles the pressure of a full time health-care professional IN A PANDEMIC as well as being a full-time mama. She nurses her little princess and has never had to supplement. She is a POWERHOUSE!”
Even though this is a scary time, Wan hopes to remind her daughter of one aspect of it when she looks at this photo later:
“She comes from strength,” Wan told 11 Alive. “And in her weak moments, hopefully that picture will remind her just how strong she is.”
A version of this story was originally published on May 4, 2020.
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