Health care heroes: Through the looking glass

Respiratory therapist Robert Guikema spent a week living away from his family last summer after a COVID-19 exposure. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s note: This is part one of a nine-part series on health care employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more stories, click here.

During this pandemic, keeping loved ones safe has been at the top of all of our minds. But for Robert Guikema, the stakes never felt heavier due to the constant potential exposure to COVID-19 he faced at work every day as a respiratory therapist for Metro Health.

“I’d never thought I’d see so many deaths in a short time,” Guikema said. “Every day I go into work and pray I don’t contract the virus and bring it home.”

Though Guikema knew statistically he, as a healthy man in his early 30s, would most likely be OK, he saw firsthand the lasting effect this virus could have on patients and their families. “Of course, I see the worst of the worst, but you have to remember, every single one of my patients have family members and none of them could have ever thought this is how their loved ones would die.”

Because of this, he knew he could not take any risks. “We all have choices, and my choice is to be safe rather than sorry,” Guikema said. “I don’t want to feel any kind of regret if I don’t do something, and then as a result, something happens to my family. That would be on my shoulders for the rest of my life, and I’d never want to take that chance.”

“Every single one of my patients have family members and none of them could have ever thought this is how their loved ones would die.”
Robert Guikema

When Guikema was possibly exposed to COVID-19 last summer, protecting his children and wife, who also works as a nurse, was his top priority. Luckily for their family, Guikema owned a camper; therefore, he decided to quarantine in the vehicle until it was safe to step foot in his house.

Though not all his relatives, friends or even coworkers agreed with his decisions and felt as if he was being too cautious, Guikema knew this was what he needed to do to keep his loved ones safe.

It did not come easy. Not being able to hug, play or interact with his newborn and 2-and-a-half-year-old was excruciating. While he may have only physically been a few feet from the house, emotionally, Guikema never felt farther away from his family.

“It was the longest and hardest week of my life,” Guikema said. “My 2-and-a-half-year-old is a complete daddy’s boy. Because he would cry if he couldn’t run up to me and play, I had to wait until nighttime to go outside and look through the window so he wouldn’t see me. Though I was doing this to give our family peace of mind, it was an emotional battle to feel so far away from my children.”

After receiving both vaccine shots, Guikema feels optimistic and hopes everyone, no matter their political affiliation, can trust in the work of science. “I am not a political person at all, but we have seen all this destroy our community. I just hope people can take the time to listen to science so none of us have to live with any regrets because I, for one, would love to finally hug my grandparents.”

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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