There recently appeared an article by Dike Drummond, M.D. in Medscape Magazine, in which he objected to the current vogue of calling doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals “heroes” and “saints”. Any profession in which the practitioner places his or her life in jeopardy, be it police, firefighter, soldier, certainly has a “heroic” aspect to it. But it’s also what each of us sign on for when we decide to take the job.
During this still growing pandemic, the news outlets make abundantly clear the horrendous stress, exhaustion, and attendant burnout faced by those on the front-lines of this ongoing battle against a disease that kills and cripples with almost impunity. The statistics showing the mounting toll of those infected as well as those who continue to die in record numbers is difficult to ignore, despite the naysayers claiming this is overblown. Refrigerator trucks piled with the dead overwhelming the spaces in our mortuaries are difficult to ignore.
So what’s wrong with placing our healthcare workers on a pedestal, and idolizing them as heroes, or even saints? The problem is that we on the vanguard of this struggle are just people, trying to do our jobs the best we can despite difficult circumstances. We can’t possibly live up to all the heroic standards that are projected upon us. We have not been given superhuman powers. We do become exhausted, and we do fail, despite all our best efforts. And if we start to believe some of the idolatry heaped upon us, it only magnifies the horrendous guilt we feel every time one of our patients dies, every time our depleted tank of compassion fails to meet the current needs of those demanding our efforts. We can’t give what we don’t have, but we can die trying to live up to standards thrust upon us that are impossible to meet.
If we don’t allow ourselves and our colleagues to rest, to recharge, to nourish our bodies as well as our souls, we end up among the fallen, next to the victims. The fight with this disease is not a sprint; it’s a marathon for which we have to maintain reserves. When we are at work, there is no question – we must use all our knowledge and energy and compassion to aid those in our charge. However, when we leave the hospital, we have to take care of ourselves, our children, our families, and each other. We are not gods, we are not superheroes, and we must never allow that impossible mantle to fall on our shoulders. What rests there is heavy enough of a burden already.