I am a graduating fourth-year medical student and new internal medicine resident — one of many newly minted physicians that will be thrown into the frontline to take care of COVID-19 patients in a little over a month. It’s a strange time to be graduating – we have spent years training to get to this point, yet celebrating is the last thing on our minds as we gear up for the war that we are told is coming.
We wake up every day to commentaries telling us in painful detail how COVID-19 is overwhelming our health care system, to stories from our colleagues about brutal working conditions and gut-wrenching choices, and to articles about health care providers dying because they did not have adequate personal protective equipment.
We are, understandably, afraid. Ready to help tackle a major public health emergency and do the job that we have been dreaming of for so long, but uncertain of what that may mean for our personal health and safety. However, I have also been struck by how the pandemic has strengthened our collective voice as health care workers –students, residents, nurses, and established physicians — and amidst the overwhelming heartbreak and chaos, I have also felt glimmers of hope.
A little under a year ago, an article about how the business of health care depends on exploiting doctors and nurses made waves in our community. It talked about an unsustainable status quo, with high levels of burnout and suicide among doctors and nurses, thousands of uncompensated hours spent finishing up spillover work, and the huge interest-bound debt we must pay off.
As a community, we have been mostly happy to do it — we entered this profession to help people, and most of us feel it is our moral obligation to ensure our patients receive the highest level of care, even if that means compromising our personal health or time. But now, as COVID-19 has pushed these tensions to a breaking point, I am encouraged to see us make our voices heard.
In this era, I have seen so many more of us organize, advocate, and collaborate than ever before. And it has been inspiring to see that when we band together, our voices matter.
In a short span of time, we got over 1.9 million signatures on a petition urging our government and industry to assist health care workers in obtaining N95 masks. Our petition for alleviating student loan debt for health care providers responding to COVID-19 got over 200,000 signatures and a champion in Congress. It is saddening that it took a pandemic to prioritize addressing the flaws in the way our country treats its health care workers, but now it is our time to drive the change we have for so long been advocating for.
And now that we have started, it has become clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg of our emerging civic engagement. In addition to public advocacy, we have also collected thousands of N95 masks, surgical gowns, and gloves and distributed them to hospitals in need. We have come together on all platforms of media to rapidly share stories, data, cases, and experiences, showcasing what health care worker collaboration and social media-based public health education can look like in the future.
Overnight, a team of us built an entire curriculum devoted to helping each other prepare to care for COVID19 patients, while others of us developed daily infographics to spread evidence-based knowledge to the public.
I’m hopeful that if we continue this level of engagement post-COVID-19, we can both build a better tomorrow for our patients, and also create a system that better supports those of us that care for them.
Today, we are looking at a reality where over a million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and 90,000 have died, with many more on the way.
I know the months ahead will be some of the worst, most difficult that we will face in our careers. But I have never been more proud of my profession or its’ response to adversity. I am ready to join the fight — to do the job that I’ve been dreaming about for so long and to actively speak up for the needs of my patients and fellow health workers. For while the worst may be yet to come, the best may be too.
Lochan Shah is an internal medicine resident.
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