I’m a physician and I’m not a hero

Upon walking through the revolving door that guards the hospital’s main entrance, I was ushered by security staff to join the queues of my peers, also seeking passage to their respective posts.

“The new policy,” the officer explained, examining my hospital ID to confirm that I am, indeed, an employee. Visitors are no longer allowed.

“Please sanitize your hands,” another instructed me, as he pointed to the neat rows of surgical masks lining the sterile white table next to him. “One per employee per day.”

The halls of the hospital were always bustling with the chatter of patients, their families and friends, and healthcare workers. But today, the silence was interrupted only by the footsteps of my fellow hospital staff scurrying off to work.

I pushed open the double doors to the emergency department, expecting to be greeted by its usual chaos; but no, even there lay a strange order. Physicians, nurses, and physician assistants – all uniformed in blue scrubs, hairnets, goggles, and facemasks – marched steadily, marking every other patient room with precaution signs. While the floors above us experienced the calm before the storm, we were seeing it on the horizon – a grandparent from a senior home, testing positive for COVID-19; a mid-thirty year old, the primary caregiver to her elderly parents, suspected to have the disease. This is only the beginning.

“Don’t touch your mask,” was my mantra that day. There were no masks to spare – none to be found in the supply bins, none in the closets. Protective equipment was a scarce commodity, one to be rationed. One per employee per day.

And so – without eating or drinking even a sip of water, without scratching our noses or rubbing our tired eyes for fear of contamination – we proceeded, room by room, to evaluate our patients. And as we walked into each room, we carried uncertainty – we could not always predict who would reveal to us that they did, in fact, have symptoms of COVID-19; but we did not have enough protective gear to always don gowns just in case. But I also carried the constant worry that I, an otherwise young and healthy physician – the perfect set up for an asymptomatic carrier – could be spreading the disease to the very people I was trying to protect; but we did not have enough capacity to test everyone.

The rhetoric is that we are heroes. That we are privileged to have the skills to be able to help in this fight against an invisible enemy. That our patients are counting on us. But while some of my peers are itching for their moment on the frontlines, I do not feel like a hero at all. After all, can heroes be afraid? Of what has come? Of what has yet to come? What a burden it is to be called a hero, when you never signed up to fight in a war but know that it is your duty to. What a burden it is to foresee the tears of our patients and their families as they confront their suffering. What a burden it is to feel that you could be doing more harm than good, “on the front lines” without protective equipment, a potential vector of disease.

No, I reject the word “hero.” And I reject the war analogies. Because they scare me. After all, I’m just a physician-in-training, a normal human being, who can and must show up to work – not because I am a brave adventurer, waiting to defeat our assailant, but because it is my job, and my ethical and moral responsibility to do so.

Pooja Yerramilli is an internal medicine resident and can be reached on Twitter @p_yerramilli

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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