Health care workers during the COVID-19 crisis: superheroes or human-heroes?

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This essay is for my colleagues. When I say “colleagues,” I am referring to all health care workers who are currently working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis or are engaging in patient care at any level. This might be an unconventional essay coming from a doctor, but I wanted to send out my thoughts and heartfelt wishes for the well-being of health care workers during this time. Health care workers are being hailed as “heroes” at this time – and indeed, they are heroes. What worries me is that “heroes” are typically viewed as superhuman – beyond human. And that puts doctors, nurses, technicians, respiratory therapists, medical assistants, etc. into a category-leading to disownment of their human nature to function and take care of patients. This has been a reality for health care workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a doctor, I felt there was this unspoken rule that I must be above emotions, above pain, above breakdown – until difficult times came that challenged these notions. We all have difficult times, but doctors and health care providers may believe they should be able to get over feeling overwhelmed, sad, scared, or in pain rapidly in order to be there for their patients and their suffering. Theirs is the stance of having answers and solutions. If the time comes when no further solutions or treatments are possible, health care workers must be a source of comfort and stability for patients and their families. This is a noble calling, one that I cherish deeply. However, now more than ever, health care workers on the frontlines will feel the pain of their patients who are suffering from COVID-19, the sadness of the families who cannot visit their loved ones, their own fear of contracting COVID-19, and the terror of their families potentially also becoming infected with COVID-19. All of these fears can become overwhelming as this pandemic goes on. Yet we must keep in mind that health care workers must function and endure these pains and trials – not as “superheroes” but as “human heroes” – with emotions that are valid, must be owned, and may need to be addressed.

Self-honesty and communication with trusted people in our lives regarding anxiety, fear, or uncertainty that may be arising is a vital necessity at this time. These trusted people may be family members, friends, or fellow colleagues, where honesty, non-judgment, and compassion can begin to heal the pain. The sooner that health care workers get honest and talk about their fears, the earlier their anxiety (sometimes terror) might reduce. This situation is not each person’s burden to bear in isolation; sharing fears really does deflate anxiety that might otherwise lead to a paralyzing fear that ultimately could compromise patient care. And what is the point of that? Honesty about challenges and struggles is key to achieving emotional balance, feeling connected, and seeking perhaps needed help so that health care workers can show up for their patients, families, and in their own lives.

Nature is another source of healing. Outdoor time is very rejuvenating. Time spent in the hospital or clinic detracts from the awareness that the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the days are lengthening. Babies are being born. Nature has inherent restorative power. Take it in whenever possible, even if it is a light walk, a vigorous run, or just a long, lingering gaze at the blooming trees. Let Mother Nature take some of the pain, uncertainty, and fear and demonstrate how resilient we actually are and how life blooms again.

Finally, self-compassion is also critical at this time. As I said before, health care workers are human too. Feeling sadness, rage at the disease, frustration, fear, or terror is to be expected at this time. Health care workers are not immune to human feelings, and there is no shame in experiencing human emotions. As such, be gentle with yourselves and try to let go, little by little, of this myth that you are supposed to be superhuman.  Get necessary rest, seek help as needed, and talk about the struggles and triumphs with each other and our loved ones for a shared human experience. These emotions may creep up later or linger much longer than expected and may even lead to post-traumatic stress. Again, self-compassion, honesty, and seeking professional help may be useful and needed.

There are many other techniques and tools that may be helpful to ease anxiety in this stressful time. To be sure, we cannot be in denial. These are extremely difficult times. And health care workers are indeed heroes – heroes in human flesh with human emotions that must be acknowledged. These are just thoughts from one doctor who has been observing many of her colleagues demonstrate true heroism and also struggle with being a hero. If this unconventional essay helps even one health care worker give themselves inner permission to get honest about how they are feeling and not suffer in silence, then I think it was worth it.  We do not have to go through this alone; in fact, the world needs more heroes who show up in their full humanity to heal each other as we overcome this crisis together.

Veda N. Giri is a hematology-oncology physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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