“Chinese virus.” The term shocked me the first time I heard it, and since then, racial slurs and hate crimes against Asian Americans have broken out across the country. Dr. Clara Lee, a pediatrician in New Jersey, recalls, “At the grocery store, I got strange, accusatory looks; for wearing a mask or for being Asian?” Says Dr. Richard Chung, a pediatrician in North Carolina, “Racism conjured by COVID-19 has made it impossible to forget my Asian self when with my patients. I am now highly conscious of who I am.” As Asian American doctors, the emotions of our job and our race have never felt so conflicted as they are now.
On one hand, more is being asked from us than ever before. Dr. Lee recounted “the heart-wrenching decision” of quarantining away from her infant who was still breastfeeding in order to care for her patients. Dr. James Kuo, an internist who quarantined away from his family while caring for some of the first cases of COVID-19 in the country, told the NYT, “It was bittersweet to watch my younger son’s first steps recently on an iPad. I was proud of him and glad to be able to witness him achieving this milestone, but I desperately had wanted to be the person he was walking toward.”
At the same time, our identity as Asians is being met with hostility and aggression. As a psychiatry resident often working with severely ill patients, I expect to take precautions when I care for hostile or aggressive patients. Herein lies the source of discord: I do not expect to continue these precautions outside hospital walls. My mother, fearing for my safety, warned me to be careful on my walks home from the hospital. These walks, usually a meditative space to unwind from the chaos of the wards, have become tense commutes where I constantly survey my environment for potential attacks from passers-by. There is something incredibly demoralizing about fearing for your personal safety after spending the day helping people. Dr. Chung reflects, “Particularly in the anxious milieu of the pandemic, the pernicious poison of racial animus leaves all of us confused and suffering.”
Physician burnout affects over 50 percent of physicians in some studies. Numerous studies have found physician suicide rates to be significantly higher than that seen in the general population. Asians account for 17.1 percent of the physician workforce, while accounting for only 5.9 percent of the general population in the United States, making a strain on the well-being of Asian physicians likely to affect the welfare of the healthcare system at large. I worry that the combination of increased demands at work and increased coronavirus-era xenophobia is the perfect storm for burnout and mental health effects of stress. This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we are coming together in solidarity to support our colleagues during unprecedented and difficult times, and I encourage our colleagues and patients across the country to join us. COVID-19 is not a Chinese virus, nor an Asian virus: It is a human virus.
We are your doctors, and we chose this profession to help people — all people. Despite these challenges, my colleagues continue to say their sacrifices are worth it. Says Dr. Judy Chen, a surgeon in Seattle, “COVID-19 has taken so much away. It has robbed medical trainees of learning the art of medicine. It has robbed patients of the dignity of healing with their family. It has robbed my patients of getting life-saving but elective surgeries. I have come to learn that it will not rob me of my passion to help others.” Now, help us help you. We are here for you.
Katharine Liang is a psychiatry chief resident.
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