I am addicted to Facebook these days. Like everyone else, I am glued to social media, riveted by the drama unfolding around me. I read from the perspective of a primary care doctor in Seattle, the site of the first case of COVID-19 in the country. My friends and family send me regular thanks for being “on the frontlines.” In truth, I am not on the frontlines. I am not in an ICU managing sick patients or even in an ER absorbing a flood of terrified humanity, wondering which of my colleagues was going to be the first to test positive. I am not scraping together ventilators from spare parts, or even creating PPEs out of transparency film.
But I am talking to terrified patients on the phone, trying to decide who should be tested. I am gearing up in bulky PPE and standing in a cold parking garage sticking nasal swabs in people while they sit in their cars shivering, eyes watering from the invasiveness of the test. I am speaking to patients who test positive and counseling them on how to stay alive with a deadly virus rampaging through their system. I am coming home each day wondering if I am carrying an unwelcome stowaway somewhere on an inadvertently exposed part of my body.
In between all of this, I am devouring a flood of information on social media. My feed is distorted with the perspective of physicians and nurses, and much of what I read angers me. Across the country, there is a mass shortage of protective equipment for doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals without whom most of the hospitalized patients would have no chance. Over and over, I read about these dedicated individuals being asked to reuse single-use equipment, make do with handmade and untested masks, provide care with little to no protection at all. I read fury, frustration, resignation, and of course, fear.
In between these posts is everyone else writing about health care workers being heroes, brave, selfless. One hit home hard. It was a tweet about heath care heroism. I’m paraphrasing here, but it went something like this: Society owes you a debt of gratitude. If you succumb to the virus, we will sing your praises to your children, so they know what a hero you were.
I’m sorry, but no.
I am not interested in my children hearing about my heroism while I am dead and buried. I am not interested in being admired for my selflessness in caring for patients if it means risking my life.
I am not a hero.
I am a professional. I and other physicians are trained for this. We train for years to be able to do this work, and the vast majority of us are caring, committed, and extremely competent individuals. We care deeply about saving lives, and we can, if given the right tools. We take an oath to do this, and we live by this commitment.
The health care hero meme is just another way to keep doctors and nurses chained to a sinking health care system. We were already drowning when we hit the proverbial iceberg that is COVID-19, and now we are doing so more rapidly and very publicly. Do not ask me to risk my life to save another. Provide me the tools and necessary equipment to do my job while keeping me safe.
I am not a hero.
I am a mother, a daughter, a lover, a sister, and a friend. I am an athlete, a member of a spiritual community, a writer, a lover of the outdoors, a cat, and part-time dog mom.
Do not ask me to sacrifice on the altar of medicine for profit. I am not interested. I want to tell my children and grandchildren the stories of my career, including the coronavirus pandemic, not be absent while someone else sings my praises. My death reverberates far beyond the scope of who will care for my patients.
Don’t be mistaken. No one yet has asked me yet to put my life on the line. But my heart hurts for all of the professionals around the world that are being asked to make this choice. Historically doctors and nurses have always put patients before themselves. The difference is now it might cost us our lives.
Carrie Rose is a family physician.
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