Guess what, everyone, I am a health care hero. I have been applauded by strangers. The Blue Angels flew over the hospital once in the pitch of COVID to salute us. I once sifted through a giant box of free chapsticks delivered to the hospital basement and grabbed one for my colleagues.
First of all, let me clarify: There is no such thing as a “hero.” It’s a social construct laypeople create to make themselves feel safer and more secure. The health care “heroes” of COVID are just people that went above their job description in a time of distress without being mandated to.
When people strive to push past their limits despite fear and personal limitations (and, let’s be honest, the risk of death), it’s reasonable enough for them to expect recognition from their employer. Unfortunately, nothing came from COVID for us despite giant colored posters in the hospital lobby of people holding their hands in the shape of hearts. There was a red carpet day when someone shook a tambourine at me when I walked into work. And we got a giant box of chapstick.
To say the least, it’s disappointing. But why? The entire post-COVID experience (or lack thereof) has required us health care workers to ask ourselves: well, what did we expect? We went into a profession to help people, and we absolutely had that chance during COVID. So why are we complaining?
In the heyday of COVID, there was no one in the hospital except for bare-bones essential staff. My colleagues and I would eat the pizza that was delivered in bulk to the hospital, sit in the basement of the hospital, talk between shifts, then head home before coming back the next day. Our families went to different locations to reduce exposure. We didn’t have time to wait in line for toilet paper after work and had to steal some from the hospital.
We were then berated for “sitting too close to people without masks on at all times.” But there was nowhere to sit; the administration took away the chairs in the cafeteria. We had to steal toilet paper; we didn’t have time to stand in line during our one day off every two weeks. I reused the same N95 mask for 30 days. I did this while the hospital administrators were at home. Granted, this was during the peak of COVID, so it’s understandable things were disheveled. But now it’s over one year later. We’ve already had our “round two” of COVID. We all think round three is coming. Instead of creating a panel of frontline physicians to address the realities of COVID, our hospital administration is hyper-focused enforcement of nonsensical rules, but no one asks about those either.
What was the last straw? It was coming to work in early September to discover there were no parking spaces available. The school year resumed with in-person classes and administrators were also physically back to work. The solution to this influx of people was to triple park hospital employee vehicles with a valet service. This added an extra hour to our day while we waited for them to unlock our car from a gridlock parking lot.
Finally, I could articulate something exact I wanted from the administration in reparations for my COVID time: a parking spot.
Do we want parking spots? Don’t we want more money or paid vacation days? Of course, those things would be nice, but it’s almost insulting to the profession of a physician to equate difficult patient care circumstances to “extra” money. COVID patient care was brutal due to the high death rates, the general panic within the health care system, and the lack of physical supplies. However, it was still patient care, and that’s why we are all here in the first place. We don’t want more money; we don’t want an extra vacation. We want to be able to do our jobs. Instead, the administration consistently cripples that ability.
When sitting in the hospital basement in our workroom, we go on a diatribe amongst ourselves: “Until they wear the same masks for a month until they tell families they cannot come to say goodbye to their dying parent, until they have dreams about the faces of the dozens we declared dead, they cannot tell us how it’s going to be.”
But then we look at each other helplessly because it’s all an empty threat. After we work eighty hours per week for the equivalent of minimum wage, and thank our lucky stars that our quarter-million-dollar loans aren’t accruing interest this year, we don’t have the energy or resources to put up a fight. Instead, we grimace together in the hospital basement during the weekly Wednesday debrief meetings when our administrative leader appears on Zoom, in his living room, drinking espresso … with his pinky up.
We need to ask ourselves: Who is making decisions in this system? Yes, money, logistics, and business are all undeniable facets of health care. But we have strayed away from the center of what health care is all about: patients. We have spent more time going over parking rules and cafeteria seating plans than discussing where to find extra central lines next time we run out, or how our physicians will be deployed for the next COVID round.
It’s a long shot, and it’s ideal, and we can strive for it in the future, but physicians need to lead health care. COVID has taught us many things, but one thing is the alarming confidence of the administrators that never touch patients, but continue to make the final call about their logistical and financial care, and regulate frontline workers to the point we all wonder why we bother to show up anymore.
Health care heroes do indeed need something in reparations for COVID. We want recognition beyond accolades in the form of buckets of chapstick and posters. We want to be enabled by the system to provide good patient care. And perhaps a place to park, so we can still show up at work.
The author is an anonymous surgery resident.
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