Stop calling health care workers heroes and do something to help them

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The narrative that paints health care workers as “heroes” makes me uncomfortable. I may not have a right to an opinion as I am third-string back up not currently working in an overwhelmed ER or ICU. I also feel uneasy about the sea of gratitude and cheers of support, though I know they are uplifting to the people on the receiving end.

Yet, while watching these stories of appreciation, resilience, and hope, I find myself experiencing an unpleasant sensation in the back of my mind. It is reminiscent of a dystopian movie where everything seems almost normal, but gradually it becomes clear that something is terribly amiss. Finally, the truth is revealed: None of this should be happening.

As a practicing family physician for 20 years, I have worked in clinics, hospitals, and ICUs. I have sat with dying patients, holding their hands and the hands of their loved ones, participating in codes, withdrawing care. I have worked long hours in settings that are overwhelmed and understaffed. I have cared for people with highly contagious and untreatable illnesses. In fact, most of us in health care have experienced all of this over the lifetime of a career. It is what energizes and drains us, and it is why we choose the path we choose, embracing all that it entails.

It feels odd that we are suddenly being honored as “heroes.”

What is it about this moment that is so different from the job we normally do? And here is where that dystopian feeling begins to creep in.

Because none of this should be happening.

The course of our normal jobs has shifted to include an overwhelming volume of patients coming under our care so rapidly that our resources, both mechanical and human, can’t begin to keep up. Coupled with the paucity of protection to keep ourselves and our families safe, the job has become beyond exhausting at best and life-threatening at worst.

And the people suddenly on the frontlines of this crisis don’t seem to have been given a choice about being there. Consider the people lower on the pay scale: residents, nurses, environmental services, and countless other workers who may not have the option to miss a paycheck. How does it feel to be lauded as a “hero” for something you are essentially being forced to do?

Not every system works this way. In some systems, residents are kept out of harm’s way, and some leaders are putting in more hours at the frontline than anyone in their department. Volunteers are traveling across the country to support where they can, stepping into the empty spaces, leaning into the risk. These are heartwarming stories that should be honored and celebrated.

But what should not be lost is that same underlying truth: This should not be happening.

The New York Times published a chilling and comprehensive description of how we came to be here through a course of devastating decisions made by our federal government.

What is now circulating is the typical marketing strategy — the denials, the blaming, the rewriting of history. The “war” narrative is an intentionally strategic message so that our fallen health care “heroes” will be reluctantly honored as sad yet acceptable sacrifices. But health care workers aren’t soldiers, and none of us agreed to risk our lives to do our jobs. It is noble to think so, and it is noble that so many have chosen to do so, but it is not an inherent part of the job.

Perhaps in addition to the thanks we are offering to the frontline workers, we should also offer an apology.

The slow and steady rise of anti-science rhetoric, the messaging of dangerous propaganda for political gain, the misinformation, and lies running rampant on social media. All of this contributed to a situation where arrogance, hate, hubris, and greed have soundly trumped scientific processes, critical analysis, compassion, and public service.

In a 24-hour news cycle, journalists understandably feel a need to produce variety. I, too, appreciate a heartwarming story about the best in humanity rising up under the worst of circumstances. I, too, am exhausted feeling scared and worried and angry all the time. But, frankly, we should be angry all the time. We should not risk forgetting how we ended up here. Somewhere in every story, be it heartbreaking or heartwarming, there should be a consistent and steady message that reminds us: This should not be happening.

Every good apology offers amends and a promise. We need to make amends by fighting for our frontline workers to have the resources they need and keep the pressure on our leaders to continue sheltering in place until we have adequate testing and proven options for treatment. We need to promise that we won’t allow this to ever happen again. We need to hold the appropriate people accountable and use whatever power we have to make a meaningful change in our democracy. In addition to the “Thank you for everything you do!” signs, maybe we can hold up a few that say: “We promise to take action, use our voices and our votes so this will never happen to you again.”

Deborah Edberg is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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