I spent the past year and a half of this pandemic getting a degree in quality, safety, and leadership. Though there were days, nights, and weeks where I simply did not know how I could finish the work or go on, I never realized how much I needed the work to help me process what is happening around us. To help me navigate my rage at the state of our health care system and our nation as a whole. To utilize literature, writing, and informed dialogue with other professionals in a constructive manner, while also working as an anesthesiologist and an intensivist. But I’m not sure that any of the hundreds of articles or hundreds of writing assignments would have prepared me to read the headlines I saw today.
Almost half a million new cases. Another brazen attempt by federal agencies to appease the machine of capitalism. Hundreds … thousands of health care workers out sick. Empty beds without nurses to staff them. And a country of people refusing to wear masks, get vaccinated, or change their lifestyle in any way. And then I saw it: The headline that ripped my heart out. A woman who called in a death threat to a testing site because of her long wait and what she deemed as suboptimal care.
When I already know that we as health care workers are terrified to go to work each day. When we already know that we are providing substandard care by the nature of the demand. We all have been for months and years, honestly. We are losing years off our life span because we are dying from a preventable disease, and the same disease is preventing us from caring for and taking care of other disease processes. We are doing all we can. To the detriment of our own health and wellness. At the expense of our lives, our families, our sanity. And those who have left: They have every right to have left. Why should any of us stay? Why should we stay and be told that we are providing suboptimal care from the very same people who would spit in our face if we recommended masking or vaccination?
Our privilege has finally come home to roost. We have dug our grave. We all held on to this arrogant ignorance, and righteous indignation as a nation have finally found its end. And that end will be the collapse of the standard of care in the American health care system. The same people who love to throw around the service of Americans (myself included) as a reason why we should be free to go maskless and refuse a life-saving vaccine are the same ones demanding that they get the care they want, when they want it and how they want it. Clearly not understanding that we have never actually provided that kind of care in the United States unless you could “pay” for it.
These very same people have obviously never participated in a mass casualty drill on a warship. I have. There are cards we hand out. And I assure you, the sickest patients are not the first in line for care. They are deemed expectant and left to die. And those who are deemed the walking wounded (like many who are showing up in the ER for a COVID test) would be moved to the side and dealt with when time allowed. Anyone who thinks this sounds immoral or outrageous is not paying attention. We are there. We are currently delaying chemotherapy for children because pediatric hospitals are full. We have been forced into a mass casualty scenario by the very people who love to talk about their love of the military and service. Somehow I feel that these same people have forgotten that the military is about the collective over self and the perpetuation of the greater good. And we get a lot of vaccinations.
In the end, many of us, like myself, were able to see what was going to happen because honestly, science isn’t that difficult, and the fact remains that the past repeats itself until we learn from it. But we were silenced and admonished for fear-mongering. Told to stop caring about those things outside of our control or “not our problem.”
It was always our problem, all of ours. And now we stand here with the equivalent of mass casualty cards in our hands and wonder how it is we continue to show up tomorrow to do our very best to save this country from itself while saving ourselves from it all.
Nicole M. King is an anesthesiologist.
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