The myth of the healthcare hero

It’s a strange time to be alive and an even stranger time to work in healthcare.

On one hand, work is more stressful than it’s ever been before.

Our days are filled with stress, self-doubt, and more bad outcomes than we’ve ever seen. Many of us have been doing jobs outside our scope of practice for months. When we get home each night, we are undressing outside and showering before touching anything or anyone in our homes.

On the other hand, we’re celebrated by society more than we ever have been before.

At 7pm every night, windows across New York City open up for citizens to shout their appreciation for health care workers risking their well being on the front lines to take care of COVID-19 patients.

I have random people pulling over in the hospital parking lot to thank me for my service. I get free coffee every morning from a nearby store because I’m a frontline worker.

In the midst of horrific societal upheaval from this awful pandemic, healthcare workers are being treated like soldiers returning from battle

It’s a weird feeling, and one that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with. I mean, we’re taking care of patients. We’re not in the hills of Afghanistan with bullets flying.

After the first few weeks of the pandemic when I had a legitimate fear for my safety due to the PPE shortage, we’ve largely been able to protect ourselves working in the hospital.

Everyone takes their time donning and doffing PPE so we keep ourselves as safe as possible. When we suspect a patient may have COVID, they get a designation as a PUI, or person under investigation, and are kept in an isolated room. We only enter wearing full protective equipment - N95, gowns, gloves, head covering.

When we are in a COVID unit, the equipment is even more protective, where each physician has a PAPR along with supervised donning and doffing procedures.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a risk free endeavor, but health care workers who take adequate protections have a pretty low risk of getting sick.

Many physicians, particularly residents, have raised concerns about working conditions

The medical system has always been one where shit flows downhill.

Medical training is really hard. Your hours suck. Your sleep-wake cycle is always disrupted because you’re switching between days and nights. You’re constantly being evaluated by people whose evaluations determine your future job prospects.

And now in the time of COVID, medical trainees - students, residents, and fellows - are working longer hours with more responsibility than ever before.

Some academic medical centers are providing hazard pay. At NYU, where I did all of my training, there’s significant controversy about how residents are being treated and whether they are being appropriately compensated for the risks that they are taking.

It’s a lot to ask of anyone. And residents are on the front lines taking legitimate risks. But we all signed up for a job knowing there would be personal sacrifice.

And at the end of the day, despite all of the stress, paperwork, and lack of sleep, doctors still have excellent long term earning potential and remarkable job security.

We aren’t the ones you should be worried about - or the ones you should be thanking

The economic devastation we’re facing is unprecedented. At least 30 million unemployed. 40% of households making less than $40,000 per year lost a job in March.

The essential workers - the people who serve you food, care for the elderly, and deliver your Amazon packages - are putting themselves at more risk than I am to show up at work everyday. And many other hospital employees - the people who clean rooms, serve food, transport patients - are helping sick patients everyday just like my colleagues and I are.

These are the people who have no job security and no guarantee of a lifelong 6-figure income to comfort themselves with when they’re dealing with the worry about getting sick at work. And many essential workers don’t have any assurance that the people they’ll be seeing are screened for COVID before each interaction.

They’re the ones who are helping to keep society running while this pandemic ravages us.

The feeling of genuine appreciation that I’ve been experiencing from friends, family, and strangers has truly moved me. But I don’t feel like the person who needs the support and gratitude from society. In this pandemic, doctors may be on the front lines, but we aren’t the truly vulnerable ones.