Let’s not let our pride get in the way of heroism

Nothing about quarantine feels heroic. Nothing about sitting in an empty apartment, checking the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker every 10 minutes, feels like saving the world.

Nothing about the paper I’m writing, the pantry you’re stocking, the sale he’s completing, the workout she’s posting, the pizza they’re making — none of that feels heroic when our social media feeds are peppered with dramatic pictures of the USNS Comfort sailing into New York Harbor to provide medical services to a city desperate for help.

Seriously, though. This is an iconic picture. It’ll be in history books.

Except we desperately want to be part of it. For most of us, this pandemic has tapped at a foundational, altruistic urge to do our part. (Not all of us — don’t get me started on a Zoom call I had last week for work, in which one participant gleefully spoke about the huge business opportunity this pandemic had given them.)

Our friends and loved ones are on the frontlines, their faces creased by masks worn all day, their eyes bloodshot, their foreheads grooved by too-tight goggles. Our friends and loved ones risk their lives while we … don’t.

If you’re anything like me, social isolation has felt like the opposite of heroism. It’s felt like a jarring mix of survivor guilt, uselessness, and boredom.

In a widely-circulated letter, Craig Smith, MD, chair of the Department of Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, writes, “The entire group of remainders” — those of us not on the frontlines — “suffers from a thirst combined of guilt and FOMO that will never be slaked.”

The world is burning, but we’re fine. And that feels wrong.

When two planes flew into the World Trade Center almost 20 years ago, I was a surgical intern in Manhattan. Three months out of medical school, I could barely tell a catheter from a trachea. And then 3,000 people died; I wanted to do something.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital sits nearly 200 blocks north of Ground Zero. We got very few patients that day. People were either fine or they simply no longer existed. We waited for days for the surge of patients needing our help. They never came.

Still, I tried to do something. I needed to do something. I called anyone I knew. I put my name on all the reserve lists.

But, for weeks, I walked into the doors of that hospital in Washington Heights and reported to groggy senior residents how much gauze I’d packed into a groggier patient’s chronic wound at 3 a.m. that morning.

The world was burning 10 miles to the southwest, but I was fine. And that felt wrong.

Sometimes, the most heroic thing we can do is to get out of the way.

This pandemic is a crisis. We ought to behave the way we’re taught to behave in any crisis. Except most of us aren’t taught how to behave in a crisis.

The safest thing we can do is to swallow the pride that drives us to do something.

Here’s what we medical folks learn: When a code blue is called in a hospital, your first instinct is to rush in to help. Someone’s dying. You can’t not do something.

And that’s the wrong thing to do.

The most important thing many of us doctors and nurses can do during a code is to walk away. The safest thing we can do — the thing that gives the dying patient the best chance of surviving — is to swallow the pride that drives us to do something, and to go back to the regular work of the rest of the hospital. We need to make space for the experts to do their thing.

A few weeks after 9/11, I got to help. It wasn’t much. It wasn’t what my pride wanted. But it was what my city needed.

It’s the same thing now. No one needs a head and neck surgical oncologist who spends most of his clinical time in Africa. Still, I’ve called the people I know. I’ve put my name on all the reserves lists. And I’m stuck home while the world burns.

For now. There’s no doubt that we’ll all be called on in the next few weeks to help. We’ve all got a part to do. The surge is coming, and none of our health systems are prepared.

We may face redeployment to the frontline. Or we may be asked to give blood or to man phones or to check on the people most at risk. Or we may be called on to stay home.

Let’s not let our pride get in the way of heroism. Until we’re needed, the most heroic thing we can do is to go back to the regular work of keeping this world running.

To make space for the experts to do their thing.

Mark G. Shrime is an otolaryngologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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