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Dads who are frontline workers talk about their experiences during the pandemic

Three dads shared their pandemic stories for Craig Melvin's "Dads Got This."
/ Source: TODAY

Amid the pandemic, parents who are essential workers have been grappling with a unique set of challenges as they balance the needs of their jobs and the safety of their families.

In a new episode of the series "Dads Got This," TODAY's Craig Melvin spoke with three dads who have been in that exact situation.

For Ade Sulaiman, a respiratory therapist at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the pandemic coincided with the birth of his first child. His son Jayden was born prematurely, at just 23 weeks, in February 2020, right before the pandemic began. Jayden had a number of health conditions, and Sulaiman said he was able to visit his son in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) once a day but was worried about possible COVID-19 exposures.

"Was I afraid about taking the virus over there? Absolutely," Sulaiman said. "But I still tried my best to put every precaution in place. A shower, a change of clothing, and even when I get to the NICU side of things, I put on maybe a bunny suit or extra gear just to have some protection to be around him."

Ade Sulaiman said he visited his son in the NICU at least once a day even while treating coronavirus patients.

As if a newborn with health complications and a worldwide pandemic wasn't enough, Sulaiman soon found out that his wife was pregnant again — this time with twins. The pair were born in December 2020, just months after Jayden was released from the NICU.

"I was elated. This was ecstasy," Sulaiman said. "This was another set of kids that I have to do everything in my power to just protect, to just cherish. We were still struggling with having Jayden in the NICU. We spent a lot of time at the hospital. But I would not change anything."

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While Sulaiman joked that having three kids under the age of 1 was harder than being a respiratory therapist, he said it was a relief to come home to his family as he works through the pandemic.

"Having people not being able to come see their family members in their absolute, most critical moments was pretty challenging, and watching people die with no one here for them except the clinicians who were practicing in the hospital," Sulaiman said. "Finding out that there's some exciting thing going on puts a smile on my face after every shift."

Ade Sulaiman's family kept growing during the pandemic.

For Drs. Michael and Paul Torre, caring for coronavirus patients has become a family affair. Michael Torre was just six months into his career in emergency medicine at Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital. His father, Paul Torre, worked at the same hospital and in the same department.

"The pandemic came six months into his career, you know, there was a lot of fear," Paul said. "'Am I going to get this stuff?' and, you know, 'And then wind up in a box?' or, 'Is it going to happen to my family?'"

The father-son duo had always swapped stories about their days at work, but as the pandemic escalated, those conversations took a bitter turn.

Drs. Michael and Paul Torre have been working side by side throughout the pandemic.

"Pretty much almost after every shift, we call each other and be like, 'I did this today. What'd you do today?'" Michael explained. "And just be like, 'I saw this today. This happened.' And I think that helps, without specifically saying, 'I need help.'"

When the pair do work side by side, their bond helps them treat patients.

"Medicine in general is teamwork," Michael said. "When in you're in one place for a while, you know, you know how your team works and everything flows smoothly. This is our first time working together and it's teamwork (as if) we'd been doing it for years."

For Dr. Justin Reed, a resident physician at St. Joseph Medical Center in Indiana and a father of five, the pandemic has been extremely difficult. To keep his children safe, he avoided contact with them when he came home, and when his father-in-law and grandfather both contracted the virus, none of the family could be with them. His father-in-law suffered a COVID-induced stroke, but is recovering; his grandfather passed away. The two men said goodbye via iPad.

"Grandpa couldn't speak because he was on (an) oxygen mask and (my) father-in-law couldn't speak because of the stroke so they just kind of looked at each other and cried," Reed recalled. "It was a pretty harrowing, touching experience."

Reed said that explaining it to his children was the hardest part of all.

Dr. Justin Reed said the hardest part of the pandemic was telling his five children that a loved one had passed away.

"There's been hard moments, but overall, they were just willing to go with it," Reed said. "And they wear their masks and even my five year old, when we go out and see somebody not wearing a mask or not wearing it properly, points it out and says, 'Doesn't that guy know he could catch COVID?'"

While the year has been hard on the family, Reed said that the vaccine rollout is giving him some hope for the future.

"Walking through that door and picking up and holding my son with my mask in my hand instead of on my face, with a sticker that says I got vaccinated, that's the feeling that I have now," Reed said. "(I'm) grateful to be on this side of it."

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