I am not your Hero: Navigating COVID-19 on the Frontline
“See it’s a cold world, so homie bundle up. We ain’t on this grind for nothing, so get your hustle up.”—Lil Wayne
I have been an absolute terror—I know it. I think I may have dropped more expletives in the past three weeks than in my entire life (maybe lol). As a frontline healthcare worker during this COVID-19 pandemic, I have to admit the stressors in the current state of our world have been getting to me. As I pace the living room floor, throwing what has now become my daily after-work tantrum, ranting about something along the lines of how life isn’t fair, my now-work-from-home husband plays video games, I mean, listens attentively. His response: write about it. I scoff, roll my eyes and storm off—annoyed that he would even suggest such an idea at a time like this, as writing would require me to take all these crazy mixed-up emotions, form them into coherent thoughts, and present them in this perfectly-crafted package for the world to read. I felt incapable of that.
Typically, emotionally challenging times are processed in stages. Think of grief, for example. There are 5 recognized stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. After a loss, no one realistically expects a person to process that life change overnight. Under ordinary circumstances we are understanding and accepting of this non-linear process during an upheaval of homeostasis. Lately, however, healthcare workers have been shoved onto the frontlines, faced with the immense responsibility of caring for our communities and lacking the appropriate resources to do so, without the time to process the rapid erasure of life as we knew it. There’s just no time. Daily, we are expected to live up to our charged tasks, all while pushing our emotions aside and wearing a brave face (whether you actually feel brave or not)—I mean after all, “we signed up for this," right?
The rest of the world has come to a sudden halt, but the healthcare world has continued to move at a faster pace than ever before. Healthcare workers have been given no time to grieve our previous ways of life. No time to grieve our once bustling cities. No time to grieve our now non-existent social lives. No time to grieve our old workflow. No time to grieve normalcy. In addition to working our usual 40+ hours a week, we are blindly navigating unknown and uncertain working conditions, coping with the physical and mental burden of being “essential”, possibly taking care of children or elderly parents, and still trying to keep the house stocked with toilet paper. We don’t get the luxury of experiencing this traumatic event isolated in the confines of our homes. Not only are we working on the frontlines, we are processing the emotional toll of this pandemic on the frontlines, as well.
In my free time I find myself compulsively reading about COVID-19, particularly as it relates to our healthcare system, which I realize is a terrible idea by the way. I am repeatedly met with messages of empowerment, heroism, and pride in being “essential” and serving on the frontline. That’s cute or whatever, but it honestly leaves me more uneasy, as I question why I can’t bring myself to align with these feel-good sentiments. The forced imagery of positivity almost feels toxic—surprisingly more toxic than the situation we are currently facing. I am missing the voices of healthcare workers, like me, who are rightfully grappling with feelings of fear, doubt, anger, and guilt. Trust me, we aren’t ALL feeling like heroes right now. So many of us are overcome with helplessness every time we walk in those hospital doors, just wondering when we will contract COVID-19 (not if). When we walk out of those doors, we sit sobbing in our cars, only to do it all over again the next day. We lie awake at night like insomniacs, as we bear witness to the death toll ticking upwards exponentially, whether it be in news reports or with our very own eyes. So, if no one has told you, it is perfectly okay to be completely unsettled by what is happening around you. You are entitled to time to process those feelings in whatever timeline you desire. Your feelings are valid.
It’s okay to feel fearful. There are so many uncertainties working in healthcare right now—what is fact today may be false tomorrow—as rules and policies have been changing daily. And just one misstep could result in the detriment of our health or the health of our patients. Many of us are developing emerging awareness of our mortality, sooner than we ever thought we would have to, despite being considered “young” and “healthy”. We are succumbing to the reality of being a statistic; our faces possibly one day to be planted on a viral social media post as COVID-19’s latest healthcare victim. Our patients beginning to resemble our grandparents, parents, siblings, children, and friends. This virus that was once an abstract concept used for meme content is now feeling like more of a life or death matter. The gripping anxiety I feel everyday when I walk into my house, leery if the virus is lingering on my scrubs, clinging to my hair, or attached to the tiny studs in my ears. The slightest cough, ache, or sniffle sends me into a panic attack thinking, “this is it.” The thought alone of possibly infecting my family with this virus literally makes sick. Healthcare workers are sacrificing a lot, in some cases everything, under the guise of “helping” and being “brave”. The “hero complex” in the healthcare industry is rampant, and it is being fortified even more so now by leadership on all levels, but the truth is that it is not realistic. There is undoubtedly fear of what lies ahead, and people should not be mocked or made to feel ashamed for their fears, especially by those who are not engaging in patient care right alongside them. We are all doing our best to manage this new normal and it’s pretty freaking scary.
It’s okay to feel doubtful. Call me a skeptic or a conspiracist or whatever. I’ve never been one to do something simple because an authority figure tells me to. I have questions. And I will ask my questions unapologetically. And I need answers. All of this conflicting and constantly-changing information we read and hear is overwhelming. I’m not sure what to believe or who to trust. But as hospital executives across the country work from the safety and comfort of their homes and corner offices, while telling frontline workers “everything is fine” or “don’t let fear rule your clinical judgement”, I begin to doubt the sincerity. I begin to doubt that my best interest is at the center of the decisions being made. Just like I doubt a piece of cloth over our faces is going to protect us from this airborne, I mean, er um, contact+droplet virus. I am having to constantly reassess risks versus reward. Stories surfacing about healthcare workers contracting COVID-19 at alarming rates make me question if the precautions I’m taking are enough to keep me safe in the long run. There are so many shortcomings and loopholes in the information we are being given, so doubt is natural. Everyday it becomes increasingly clear that no one cares about my health and safety more than I do, which may ultimately result in me having to make some difficult decisions and requiring me to ask some uncomfortable questions, because my life is literally on the line.
It’s okay to feel angry. I’m tired of the pep talks. I’m tired of the gaslighting, I’m tired of being told everything is under control when we can clearly see it is not. I’m tired of being told to “calm down”—not only it is belittling, but it minimizes the issues and insinuates that healthcare workers are over-reacting. I’m angry that #getmePPE is even a thing. We have a lot to be upset about. We are getting rationed PPE, navigating uncharted territory, and given a pat on the back and told to do our best. And despite a complete obliteration of our work environments, we are still feeling the pressure, in the midst of GLOBAL. HEALTH. PANDEMIC., to meet budget and productivity goals. Our world had come to a screeching halt, but we must continue to work with the same momentum as before. Ethics and legalities are getting put on the back burner. Universal precautions have gone out the window. We used to jump at the mention of regulatory agencies, and now as healthcare workers are seen on television floundering in trash bags and bandanas, no one bats an eye. Everything we knew up until this point is null and void, as people with business degrees now tell us the best way to do our jobs. It feels like leadership is failing us on all levels. Meanwhile healthcare workers are feeling more vulnerable and disposable with each new day.
It’s okay to feel guilty. I absolutely love my job, but honestly I find myself selfishly wanting to stay home everyday lately. Some days I have been ready to jump ship (awful, I know). Being a medical speech-language pathologist has been my dream job and I have been laser-focused on this goal for so long, only to now be secretly questioning if i chose the right profession. So many people are being forced to choose between the risks of employment vs unemployment. People are having to make unthinkable decisions about their mental health, physical health, and health of their families, while weighing the impact on their income. AND THAT’S OK. Looking out for yourself is allowed—encouraged actually. I mean, even in the event of a fiery plane crash, we are instructed to administer help to ourselves before others. However, when the idea of being a “healthcare hero” is being reinforced all around us, choosing yourself over a calling to help can leave you in quite a moral dilemma. To make matters worse, I’ve got serious FOMO during this #quarantineandchill movement. I must admit I’m seething with jealousy as I leave the house each morning while my husband works from the couch in sweatpants. I would kill to stay at home in my jammies for the next few weeks. And if I read one more article titled “Things to do When you are Bored at Home” or “Best Shows to Binge During the Quarantine,” I’m seriously going to lose it. I cannot relate. My routine of work, eat, sleep has not changed. If anything, I feel increased pressure to be more productive during my free time than ever before—I want to waste the day away on Tik Tok, watch that crazy tiger documentary, finally finish my overdue library book, stay up until 2AM listening to live DJ parties, and take advantage of all the free virtual classes being offered. But it’s not long before even more guilt sets in, as I think about the millions of Americans who have abruptly lost their jobs or have no source of income, and I am suddenly reminded of how fortunate I am to be employed at a place where I am still needed.
It’s okay to feel hopeful too. I know there is always a silver lining. In the midst of all this chaos, I am hopeful that these drastic changes in our society will make for a better world in the future. This forced pause in our hectic lives may allow us to gain clarity in what we value most. I am hopeful that once we resume our normal lives, we will relish in everyday human contact, be more intentional when we leave are homes, and show greater respect and compassion to all of the critical workers who ensured our communities continued to thrive during this time. I have especially been inspired by the unity, collaboration, and innovation of my colleagues around the country. It is in these moments that you realize the power of being just a tiny piece of a larger movement that I believe will surely be marked in history, as it highlights the strength, tenacity, and resilience of not only healthcare workers, but ALL essential workers.
When I entered this profession as a clinical fellow 5 years ago, never in a million years did I imagine that I would be standing on the frontlines weathering this storm—no one did. “Essential employee” was not in my vocabulary and frontline worker had yet to be defined. There is no denying that I chose this career. I chose to specialize in medical speech pathology. I chose to work in the biggest and busiest hospitals. Yes, I chose this because I absolutely love what I do (and I’m also one pretty badass medical SLP, I might add). However, I did not choose to be a guinea pig for evolving policies and procedures, to have my passion and skills reduced to big business bureaucracy, or to haphazardly put my life on the line. I am not interested in your lecture about my “moral obligations” as a healthcare worker. I am absolutely committed to my job, but I am not committed to martyrdom. In the same way firefighters can be wholly committed to their jobs, but would never run into a burning building without their flame resistant gear or the way a police officer would never show up to a gunfight with a switchblade, I can be a dedicated medical speech-language pathologist without putting up my life and well-being as collateral.
Healthcare works are attempting to make sense of these unprecedented times, both personally and professionally. We have no idea exactly what we are doing, but coping as best we can with the resources and circumstances provided. While we may all look like heroes to the outside world, it is important to remember that we are not rote, but rather complex beings with complex emotions during a complex time. So next time you are hyperventilating in your N95, sweating through your plastic gown, or tearing up under your face shield, don’t forget that while you deserve society’s applause, you also deserve grace. You deserve empathy. You deserve time. You deserve the understanding that we can feel a spectrum of emotions and still love our jobs.