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Up at 3:30, no coffee required

Even before the pandemic, even on weekends, Dr. Irina Gelman has always liked the clarity of the very early morning. Meet the high-octane commissioner of the Orange County Health Department.

| 08 Oct 2021 | 11:44

Dr. Irina Gelman hasn’t seen many weekends recently. “Throughout the pandemic we were lucky to get one day off,” said Gelman, who has taken to keeping a sleeping bag in the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

Gelman, 40, has always been high energy. Her mother, a professional violinist, couldn’t get Irina to sit long enough to learn how to play an instrument. Instead, Gelman was out in the yard, building hospitals for ants out of bottle caps. When she was 9, the family moved from Moldova – an agriculturally-rich area of Eastern Europe that she compares to Pine Island – to Brooklyn, where she attended a school for gifted and talented students. During her residency at Coney Island Hospital, Gelman had her second child while juggling her role as chief surgical resident and caring for her diabetic father. His swift decline, she said, “was really the driving force for me, mid-way shifting to preventative care and public health as a field overall.”

During the worst spikes of the pandemic, Gelman and her team were pulling 12-hour days, seven days a week: informing the public of updates to emergency orders, staffing vaccination pods and conducting contract tracing. “We had some reprieve over the summer for a month and a half or so, where we were able to take weekends off, or at least one day per weekend off,” she said. “To my family, I was pretty much MIA. They hadn’t seen me for a really long time. They were happy to get me back with them, hiking and doing what I like to do. Even just for one day a week.”


I always wake up at 3:30, even on my weekends. At this point, the circadian rhythm is set to 3:30. I have done that for as long as I can remember. The clarity that you get in the morning when everybody’s asleep – it gives you ample time to really catch up on everything and set up your day properly.


I catch up on current events and any readings or any updated articles – anything I can find as far as medical-based literature. Or just catching up on family related matters.

‘Rest’ I don’t think is in my vocabulary. I’m very high energy, and between three kids and the house and family activities, it definitely keeps me busy. And my dissertation doesn’t let up either because I still have to keep up with that until I submit it, finally.


When I was very young, I used to sneak surgery books at night under my covers... it was either back surgery or foot surgery.


I definitely go to the gym in the morning with my husband. Nothing rigorous, but at least a half hour to an hour to get regular exercise.


Even though we were technically off for a day or two on the weekends, the phone does not stop ringing. The phones, the emails, the communication aspect of it; it’s truly just nonstop, from the time that I wake up in the morning, until I go to bed.


After we come back from the gym, I usually make a much bigger brunch than I would otherwise. Sometimes I listen to dance music in the morning while I’m making pancakes, or listen to music while I’m reading or working on my dissertation.


Then, it’s sort of catching up on the routine, catching up on chores, cooking, getting outdoors as a family if the weather allows.


Saturdays, we love to go hiking as a family. My husband is an avid fisherman and likes to forage for mushrooms. I think my husband would divorce me if I gave away his foraging and fishing spots, but generally, we try out most of the spots that anybody would think of.

He loves a mushroom called chicken of the woods, and I made a recipe called sesame chicken of the woods. So it’s like a faux-play on sesame chicken. The family absolutely loved it – except for the little one. The little guy is not too keen on newer recipes.


The kids have a jam-packed weekend where they have all of their activities, piano lessons and soccer and dance. My oldest one, she’s into fencing and she plays the organ. She’s my mother’s dream-child, finally: music. Even when we drop off one of the older ones at the activities or lessons, we still go hiking, mushroom foraging or fishing – some sort of activity in between.


On the regular week to week, you will find us at local farms or farmers markets, or just doing our own foraging. If we can pick our own or go to a local farmer’s market, that’s an absolute win of a day.


I like to cook nightly. It’s both relaxing and therapeutic. I was in the kitchen with grandma when I was little, so I learned quite a bit from her. That was my influence. [My husband and I] have quite the eclectic palates. Growing up in Brooklyn, we tried foods in every single neighborhood possible. We love trying out new recipes with the kids.


We have family movie night once a week. It’s usually me making popcorn or hot chocolate and we watch a new movie, Disney or something PG.


Pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, I have never drank alcohol any time in my life, not ever; not even for New Year’s, not even a sip, not beer not wine of any sort. And I don’t drink coffee.

I do drink quite a bit of tea. I’m a bit of a tea connoisseur. But I do not drink coffee and I definitely do not partake in any alcohol whatsoever. There’s no higher reasoning for it other than that it’s not good for you and it doesn’t smell good. I typically stay away from anything that’s a stimulant or a downer, or any kind of controlled substances. So maybe that’s what kind of maintains my energy levels throughout.


I stay up late, and that’s the one part I would not recommend. I would hope to catch up on a little more sleep once I’m done with my dissertation, because obviously it’s important.

I do take quite a bit of work home. Or at times, I need to catch up on evidence-based journals, or new literature I need to review. So I hope to get to sleep around 10:30 or so. Sometimes that’s not an option and it ends up being 11 or 11:30. I fall asleep immediately once I get a chance to. I can sleep standing up at this point.

When we drop off one of the older ones at the activities or lessons, we still go hiking, mushroom foraging or fishing – some sort of activity in between.