How do you know which doctors are essential?

This is a time of change and uncertainty in medicine. Being a resident right now during the pandemic of 2020 is even more unpredictable, especially in a field that is not necessarily directly on the frontlines, so to speak. Two years ago, I was choosing between psychiatry and emergency medicine after a long-standing interest in the latter, having no idea that during my training, we would experience a crisis of global proportions. Do I regret choosing psychiatry now? Not a chance. However, when I see signs saying, “Healthcare Heroes” or “Thank You Essential Workers,” I pause and wonder, does that even refer to me? Do I deserve that appreciation?

Just being a new doctor is enough to cause one to think that they are not essential. There is a little voice in the back of your mind instilling doubt in your day to day work. Doubting whether you are capable. Doubting if you can stand the pressure. Doubting if you have the mental fortitude to handle the emotional and physical drain of medicine. But now, we are in the middle of medical turmoil, and people all around us are thanking health care providers for their tireless efforts. However, the voice persists. “As a resident, am I essential?” Initially, I was not sure. On one hand, I am still a trainee and learning the art and practice of my specialty. We have supervisors who possess more experience and knowledge than us, which in theory makes us nonessential. Furthermore, for myself in particular, I am in the field that studies the brain and behavior, so how can I help during this period of fevers and shortness of breath caused by an infectious disease?

Newly minted doctors began as residents on July 1st, several months into this pandemic. I remember what it was like last year when I was a new resident. It was terrifying. I constantly felt like I did not belong in the profession or deserve the letters after my name. However, I forged ahead, trying to muffle the nagging and doubting voice and move forward. However, in the beginning, on the steepest slope of the learning curve that is intern year, I just went to work. I moved throughout the hospitals with only the stress of the job weighing me down. Now, the new residents have begun during a time of additional unease and sacrifice. Being in medicine is already selfless enough, working holidays and weekends, missing out on gatherings of family and friends, but now, people are potentially compromising their health by running straight into the fire. We were never able to work from home, instead leaving our homes daily to go to work and risk exposure. How do we continue doing this?

Shifting the perspective is important. Just because a physician is not in the ICU titrating ventilator settings for a COVID-19 positive patient in respiratory failure does not make them any less important. I now have come to realize that my resident colleagues in all specialties are essential. Not only are we learning how to be doctors during this evolving time in the field due to this pandemic, we are going to be pioneers in how we continue to practice medicine. The changes we are making now could have a lasting impact, and we are at the forefront – one could even say frontlines – of this new frontier.

This is the time to support one another. Part of that comes from ensuring a healthy mindset and knowing when to reach out to someone to offer or ask for help. To my fellow psychiatry colleagues, the coming months and years will be a turning point. Mental health has always been an important and pressing issue, but as we deal with the stress of quarantining and working during this time, it is even more imperative that we take care of each other and ourselves. We are all going through a traumatic time. People are grieving the loss of social connection, anticipated events, financial security, and for many, the loss of beloved family and friends. To my fellow residents, we may still be in training, but every day that we go to work and care for patients and each other is an accomplishment and something of which to be proud. We may be tired, frustrated, overwhelmed, anxious, and countless other emotions, but we are working and training during a time of great strife and sacrifice. Just like everybody else in the health care system, we have our part to play and are indeed essential.

Alison Yarp is a psychiatry resident.

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