MANCHESTER — Dr. Laurel Parker arrives home at her Manchester home, following a day of overseeing MaineGeneral Medical Center’s emergency departments in Augusta and Waterville.

All day she’s been wearing a mask at the hospital. At the end of her shift, she vigorously washes her hands up to her elbows, washes her face and changes into clean scrubs and shoes. Once home, she leaves a bag of her dirty work clothes and shoes in a corner of the garage and immediately takes a shower.

“My kids know not to touch me until I’ve changed and washed,” Parker said in a recent interview. “That’s a new kind of thing. ‘You can’t touch mommy until she’s gone and cleaned up.'”

Dr. Laurel Parker offers a kiss on the head to her daughter, Calla, as her son, Logan, rushes to her for one of his own April 16 at their home in Manchester. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Ever the planner and preparer, Parker knows all too well the danger of coronavirus infection, which causes the COVID-19 illness. So for nearly two months, she has intensified her cleanliness precautions, especially when returning home to her husband and two children.

“I could get sick and I could bring this home to my family,” she said. “You never want to cause your kids pain. It is a definite concern.”

Parker, 36, has been medical director of MaineGeneral Medical Center’s emergency departments in Augusta and Waterville for the past year and a half. Daily for the last two months she’s been among those whose work now takes them into the heart of the struggle with the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Laurel Parker, director of the MaineGeneral Medical Center’s emergency departments, uses her phone April 15 to share the scene with her children from the parking lot as she arrives at work at MaineGeneral Thayer Campus in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

As of Friday, MaineGeneral Medical Center has had a total 15 inpatients testing positive for coronavirus, according to hospital spokeswoman Joy McKenna. That has included five current inpatients, two transfers, four discharges and four deaths related to coronavirus.

Parker has been with the central Maine area health system for seven years in all, working previously as an assistant medical director and physician. She is married to Brian Juengst, who works for the state of Maine, and they have two children: 6-year-old Logan and 3-and-a-half-year-old Calla.

Parker completed her residency at Hartford (Conn.) Hospital, completing a fellowship in ultrasound emergency and earning a medical doctorate from the Tufts School of Medicine.

She grew up in Bradford, just north of Bangor in Penobscot County — “a small rural town in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

“Just helping people is really what I enjoy doing,” she said, “especially emergency medicine, taking people at their  most vulnerable and at their worst days, and trying to help them. I also enjoy the diagnostic dilemma of the emergency department, figuring out what’s going on with them.”

 

‘ALL HANDS ON DECK’

Parker recalls that she and her colleagues initially had more questions than answers as the scope of the coronavirus outbreak began to come into focus in early March.

At the time, Parker said she was with other Maine medical directors at a conference at Sugarloaf resort, and “that was our sole topic of discussion” as everyone “tried to figure out what was coming.” She got back from the conference and it was “all hands on deck” as the hospitals’ emergency departments began preparations for the coming coronavirus confirmations.

Dr. Laurel Parker arrives at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer Campus in Waterville for the overnight clinical shift in the emergency department on April 29. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Before the virus outbreak, Parker said her job was about three-quarters administrative and one-quarter clinical, but as the pandemic crisis deepened “it became apparent I needed to become more administrative to be fluid in whatever may come and step back from clinical duties.” That was a tough adjustment, because as a trained physician Parker wants to be “working out there on the frontlines.”

Her four-day workweek expanded to five days and longer hours, including overnight shifts with clinical work. March turned out to be a lesson in preparedness.

“It’s hard to treat a disease we don’t know a lot about,” she said. “We were making changes to staffing in the emergency department, and even now, we’re just sort of waiting for that other shoe to drop — are we going to surge? I feel we’re prepared, but are we prepared enough? I just don’t know if we’re doing enough.”

After two months, it’s still left Parker feeling weary and with a sense of unease.

But she’s been heartened by the work of her “remarkable team” at MaineGeneral, and the stories of heroics of health care workers across the country and world.

On her news consumption, “I try to keep as factual as possible, otherwise you can go down a lot of rabbit holes.”

“Maine CDC has been a great resource. We have blogs and podcasts for emergency medicine with a lot of information,” Parker said.

Parker uses access to a discussion board from the American College of Emergency Physicians to keep informed on emerging medical information.

Dr. Laurel Parker meditates with her son, Logan, before bed time at home in Manchester on Friday, April 24. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

To cope with the situation, Parker keeps coming back to planning and organization.

“We do what we can do to have some modicum of control. I’m a planner,” Parker said. “I do make lists. At home, I cleaned out the pantry and made sure we had all the essentials, stocked up at the store, took stock of what we had. Made sure we had a lot of pasta.”

“I try to enjoy my family when I’m home and, as much as I can, leave work at work,” Parker said.

 

NEW FAMILY LIFE

Parker’s son, Logan, was anxious and was worried at the start when he started hearing about the coronavirus at school. He asked his mother questions and she kept her responses basic: keep your hands clean.

“My daughter asked yesterday, if we could go to a movie theater, and I said we couldn’t, and she said, ‘Oh right, because of the germ,'” Parker said. “Sometimes Logan is nervous about mommy going to work, and I tell him I wear protective equipment at work to keep me safe and shower.”

Dr. Laurel Parker looks through Logan’s assignments for the day after dinner April 13 in Manchester. Brian Juengst has been homeschooling the two children when he can, as his work schedule is a bit more flexible than his wife’s. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Child care has been a challenge as Parker and Juengst continue working. There is no longer kindergarten for 6-year-old Logan, so he’s been attending an Augusta-area preschool in the meantime.

“He has gone back to preschool with my daughter,” she said. “It’s not always fun for him, but it’s what we had to do. We did send him with a first grade workbook.”

Juengst is able to do some work from home and help with homeschooling the children as well.

Brian Juengst helps his son, Logan, 6, with schoolwork April 16 while at home in Manchester. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

They try whenever possible to do fun educational activities with the kids: shaping Oreo cookies to look like the different phases of the moon; making butter; finding the melting point of ice cream. They’ve also set up video conference play-dates through FaceTime, including a friend’s birthday party.

They spend as much time as possible on the weekends being outside. They bought the kids a bounce house. “We’re just trying to make it work, juggling kids and schedules,” Parker said.

A silver lining has been increased family time — “being together and really enjoying each other’s company and having all these fun adventures.”

“Sometimes we get so busy in society making sure kids have this activity and that thing. Now, it’s just, ‘Go play outside. Logan, go as far into the woods as you want, as long as you can see the house.’ He gets to be a kid and not do everything else.”

At bedtime, there’s ritual reading and quiet time meditating as well.

 

HOPE AT THE TUNNEL’S END

Parker said she prefers the term “physical” distancing over “social” distancing, as a reminder to stay connected with family and friends and not become too isolated.

Juengst’s mother, who lives in Randolph, has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment, so he has been doing grocery shopping for them as well so his mother can avoid possible exposure.

Parker says everything comes down to a new way of thinking and planning for new schedules: Do I really need strawberries from the grocery store? Or, do I really need to go to the grocery store right now?

Dr. Laurel Parker reads to her son, Logan, during the bedtime ritual April 24 in Manchester. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

But planning has its limits.

“The problem is the unknown; it makes it even more difficult to cope with when so much is unknown,” Parker said. “We do wonder when we will be able to have Logan go back to summer camp, or to go browse at Target — all those things we used to think were normal.”

Brian Juengst and Laurel Parker hug April 24 as the night winds down and the children are put to bed. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

But in the meantime, Parker said it’s important to have hope and look toward better days.

The family has also started a “quarantine bucket list,” meaning they want to do a certain thing when quarantine is over. Parker keeps the list on her phone: Logan wants to hug his cousin and play with his best friend. The kids also want to go to a pool and the children’s museum. And see their Nana and Grandpa.

“We’ll try to do that; there’s hope at the end of the tunnel,” Parker said. “It’s trying to take that negative to, ‘No, we can’t do that now, but let’s put it on the list for the future.'”


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