In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across North America and around the world have embraced a touching ritual. In New York, for example, one of the hardest-hit cities in the world, residents have taken to communally cheering on their healthcare workers every evening at the 7 p.m. change of shift, as the New York Times reports. For many of us, it’s moving to hear those sounds. This communal demonstration of gratitude for the effort that all healthcare workers are engaged in right now buoys all of our hopes that our efforts to curb the pandemic and preserve the lives of countless individuals will somehow prove successful.
In tandem with the cheering, a widespread tendency to refer to us as “healthcare heroes” has arisen. I’m certain that the word “hero” is intended to convey honor, affection and respect. It sometimes feels like a heavy burden, though, to take on the mantle of a hero, and many physicians feel misgivings about our seemingly sudden elevation to that status.
The Hero We Cannot Be
For many of us, the word “hero” brings up images of a superhuman being. Often, physicians find that image uncomfortable. It doesn’t square with who we know ourselves to be, and furthermore, we know that there may be negative effects to hero worship. Yes, we’re strong and we’re committed. We know in our hearts, however, that we aren’t indestructible.
What’s more, we simply know too much to be entirely fearless in the face of the pandemic. Many of us chafe at the expectation that we and our co-workers should engage in unreasonable risk-taking. We’re angry at the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the news reports suggesting that physicians and nurses have lost their jobs as a result of their advocacy for patient and healthcare worker safety. It’s not easy to project the unshakeable hero and be livid all at once. Nonetheless, we cannot and should not embrace the public illusion that we are so selfless as to not mind risking our own or our families’ lives. If being “healthcare heroes” means accepting intolerable conditions, no amount of cheering will suffice to carry us forward.
The Nature of Our Commitment
Why, then, are we in this battle? As a group, we’ve made a deep commitment to the welfare of humanity. For many of us, despite our fears, that commitment continues to permeate the fibers of our being. In fact, for some of us, our discomfort with the hero language common to current discourse stems from the fact that we’re unable to meet the need as well as we would like. Dr. Colleen Farrell, a resident in internal medicine, expresses it clearly with these words, published in the New York Times: “Don’t assume health care workers feel like heroes right now. Though we are often called heroes these days, most of us feel as if we should be doing more to stave off illness and death. In the I.C.U., I feel guilty that I don’t have the skills to intubate patients. … At home on my days off, I feel guilty I’m not at the hospital.”
Further, our commitment is not only to our patients. We are part of an essential human subgroup — Team Healing Arts. As Dr. K. M. Walker, an obstetrician, recently put it on KevinMD, “I sit in my car in the hospital parking garage, searching for the strength to go inside. We have limited science to guide us and no experience with this grim intruder. … The thought that finally pushes me through the hospital’s automatic glass doors is this: my team is in there.” I understand that sentiment entirely. There have been moments in the last few months when I wanted to turn and run. And then I think of the physician colleagues I care about, the nurses I love and the respiratory therapists — oh, the respiratory therapists facing down COVID-19! If they are there, where else could I be?
The Heroes We Truly Are
I clearly recall two things about my eighth-grade history teacher, Mr. Dettmer. First, that his class began every day with the tinny sounds of an old recording of the Key West theme song, “Ride on the Little Conch Train! (Where? Key West!)” And second, that he made us all learn his definition of a “hero” until we could recite it from memory. “A hero,” he said, “is simply an ordinary person who takes action under extraordinary circumstances.” Could that be us?
Recently, I saw the most moving YouTube video. “Social Distan-Sing – Vol. 2: They’re Right in Your Town” is a tribute to “Hamilton: An American Musical” and to us. If you watch it — and I recommend you do — I suggest you grab the tissues first.
This tribute speaks to me so deeply for some of the same reasons that “Hamilton” does; it takes heroes who’ve acquired mythical proportions and makes them flawed humans once again confronted with an unpredictable, life-threatening future. Like us, they’re scrappy and committed, unwilling to throw away their shot at having some sort of meaningful impact on the world. Could it be that we’re becoming that kind of “healthcare hero?” My bet is that most of us already were.