What does it mean to be responsible during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As women physicians, especially physician-moms and women physicians of color, we have handled and achieved more than the vast majority of the population, in order to reach our current status of physician.

We do because we can.

We are Superwomen. Until we’re not.

Without thought, we take on others’ responsibilities, because we can.

In addition to our own personal responsibility to ourselves and to our loved ones, we take on the responsibilities of our patients’ well-being, the failures of dysfunctional medical and political systems, and even the disastrous effects of diseases, such as COVID-19.

Our patients hand over their poor health to us, and we accept it.

Our dysfunctional medical systems hand over their inadequacies to us, and we accept them.

Our white male department chief hands over an unpaid position created to right racial and gender inequities to a woman physician of color, and she accepts it, without pay.

Our unethical government hands over the lack of PPE and massive disinformation, and we accept the multiple adverse consequences of this, as if we are responsible.

Even when we are not at work, we are, as one of my physician-mom clients put it, “momming” the world. We walk into a small shop in which the employees are unmasked, and we cannot leave without giving them a mini info session (as quickly as possible because they are unmasked) about this virus—how it spreads, asymptomatic carriers, its serious effects, the recent increase in cases in the area, the effectiveness of masking, the reasons for mitigation orders, the lack of an effective treatment or vaccine, the horrendous manifestations of this disease. Just today, I did it again. To no avail. My words fell on this twenty-something woman’s deaf ears.

Last week I called the owner of a small organic grocery store explaining for 40 minutes why his employees should be masked—that his store’s policy of universal customer masking, waiting outside at 6-feet distances, limiting total numbers within the store, having us wash our hands before touching anything, the pre-cleansing of shopping carts, was rendered ridiculous by the fact that not one single employee was wearing a mask. Nor were they practicing 6-foot distancing within the store itself. And when I heard his children playing in the background, I detailed the characteristics of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. Deaf ears. Again.

We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Because we can.

Until we cannot.

Our extraordinary capabilities and past successes paradoxically lead us to taking on even more, rather than facing the guilt of not doing so, or the pain of labeling our own behavior as “unethical.”

It’s one thing when we are caring for and protecting our own small children or those who are not able to hold the same degree of responsibility as we are. It’s another if we willingly continue to hold others’ responsibilities for them.

This is a terrifying time for our lives and livelihoods to depend on self-centered, ignorant, sick, greedy, or irresponsible individuals. Our response? To take on even more.

I can’t remember a more significant time in my life to recognize that “responsibility” is, in fact, “the ability to respond.”

I can’t think of a more significant time to accept that instead of Superwomen, we may, in fact, be Wonder Women.

So, if you find yourself stuck in this Superwoman-super responsible dilemma, here are a few things to consider:

  1. What is mine? What belongs to “other?”
  2. How able am I to respond? What is an effective response?
  3. Who and what am I truly responsible for?
  4. What outcome do I want? What actions will achieve this?

And, if you are feeling guilty, ask yourself if you, yourself, have knowingly done something to cause another pain or harm. If the answer is no, how willing are you to place the responsibility back with its appropriate owner?

As a good parent, we know that we cannot solve our older/adult children’s problems for them, that when we stop “doing for them” it allows them the opportunity to grow and the greatest chance of success.

And, yes, this pandemic makes this especially challenging.

But I cannot think of a more important time for us to respond effectively.

Rebecca Elia is an obstetrics-gynecology physician and physician coach. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Rebecca Elia, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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