Health care workers in the time of COVID: reluctant superheroes?

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Invisible and unassuming, the radioactive spider slowly descends from the ceiling, and before he knows it, Peter Parker’s life has changed forever. With that one bite, he is transformed from a normal man into a reluctant superhero. Only, that infamous spider is COVID-19, and Peter Parker is a health care worker during these troubled times.

It may surprise you to know that many of us in health care are uncomfortable being called heroes. We never signed up to be superheroes, and before COVID-19, it was unusual to hear people refer to us as such. As an oncologist who has spent his entire career utilizing radiation to treat cancer (I haven’t given anyone superpowers yet, despite my patients’ joking inquiries), I’m used to hearing statements about my job like “Doing that must be so hard,” or “What made you choose that as a career?” or “I could never do that!” But up until a few weeks ago, I had never been called a “hero.” So, it begs the question: What changed?

Collectively, society cringes at the idea of Peter Parker being in danger, that a common person like you or I could be put in harm’s way. But as soon as we label him as the “Spider-Man,” his reluctant willingness to risk his life to save others becomes acceptable and even glamorous. We no longer feel bad that he could perish, because now, he is a superhero.   Health care workers in the age of COVID are no longer Peter Parker. They are Spider-Man.

Early in the pandemic, at least in the U.S., there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Curiously, we began to hear stories of doctors and nurses being fired from their essential jobs because they chose to defy orders and wear masks, only wishing to protect themselves and their patients.  Simultaneously, we saw cardboard cut-outs of generic superheroes wearing capes go up in front of hospitals and “health care hero” stickers being handed out to hospital staff right before they vanished into the abyss to care for COVID patients without adequate protection.   A health care worker could flash their hospital identification badge at a restaurant or store and get free food or a discount, because suddenly, they were heroes. It seemed that all the work health care providers had done in their careers prior to late 2019 was now just the work of regular old Peter Parker, and not worthy of the praise showered upon a superhero who could climb walls and swing from rooftops.

I love what I do. I have from the beginning. Its one of the greatest honors to serve cancer patients, many of whom are facing the most difficult and daunting battles of their lives. There is nothing more rewarding than when someone you have seen at their lowest, gives thanks to you for saving their life. It is truly a gift to be able to give someone a chance to work things out with their estranged spouse or to see their child graduate from college. Very few of us are lucky enough to be able to give someone a second chance at life, and for this opportunity, I will be eternally grateful.  However, like many health care workers, I don’t feel comfortable seeking accolades for simply being lucky enough to do what I love.

To be sure, I can’t claim to speak for all health care workers.  In fact, I suspect many will disagree with my views. It isn’t my intention to appear ungrateful to members of the public who wish to support health care workers during these difficult times, despite having their own COVID-related obstacles. It’s heartwarming to see the spontaneous public applause at 7 p.m. shift change that we are witnessing in many North American cities. Recently, an elderly patient of mine shared a picture drawn by his young grandson praising the work of health care workers, which I then distributed throughout my workplace. It’s impossible to disagree with such pure and apolitical gestures, and as health care workers, we really do appreciate them.

In closing, health care workers aren’t heroes. But if we were, our superpowers would come from the people we so faithfully and lovingly serve. The “S” on our not so muscular chests stands for “Science,” not Super. The masks we wear hide our faces, but not our proud identities. Our only protective armor is effective social distancing, both within and outside of hospitals. So, if you feel the need to say thank you, we graciously and humbly bow our heads to you because it means the world to us. But please, don’t call us superheroes. Instead, help us by fighting this invisible enemy so that someday we can leave behind the life of Spider-Man and go back to being plain old Peter Parker.

Ankur Sharma is a radiation oncologist. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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