Yes, Healthcare Workers Deserve to be Called “Heroes”

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By Melissa Powell

In May, STAT News published an article entitled “Calling Health Care Workers ‘Heroes’ Harms All of Us.”

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, the piece was not the least bit critical of the workers themselves. Far from it. The authors argue that these dedicated healthcare professionals have indeed performed heroically during the coronavirus pandemic. 

At the same time, they point out that viewing these workers as heroes removes context from the discussion. For example, it turns our attention away from systemic issues they face, like the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) or the challenges presented by burnout, which actually predated the pandemic.

The parallel the authors draw is to the firefighters who risked their lives on September 11, 2001, as detailed in Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book, “A Paradise Built in Hell.” She writes that there is no question about their bravery — none at all. At the same time, they were plagued by organizational and communication issues beyond their control.

In other words, those firefighters, like today’s healthcare workers, were forced to make the best of a bad situation. Both tales are far more complicated than we might like to admit. Simply calling everybody “heroes” doesn’t adequately describe the entirety of their experience.

Even so, healthcare workers on the front lines are heroes and deserve to be credited for their bravery. They are the ones dealing with the seemingly endless hours and a seemingly endless stream of patients — not to mention a resurgence in cases when summer arrived. They are the ones comforting those patients when their loved ones cannot be there. They are the ones who are forced to take extreme measures to protect their own families from infection (even if it means, as it did in at least one case, sleeping in a pop-up camper in the hospital parking lot). 

The complexity of the situation doesn’t detract from their heroism any more than it did for the firefighters who entered the Twin Towers on 9/11. Context doesn’t determine who gets to be called a hero; the manner in which someone responds to difficulty does.

So let’s open our windows and doors and salute them, as has been the case in New York City every night this spring. Let’s appreciate the fact that they are putting their lives on the line, in the face of a pandemic that shows little sign of abating. Let’s literally sing their praises, as Pharrell Williams has done in the case of workers in Virginia.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres had it right when on June 23 he praised frontline workers for their “remarkable acts of service to humankind” during an address marking Public Service Day.

“We are all deeply indebted to you,” said Guterres, who commended transportation and sanitation workers in addition to those working in the healthcare sector.

Others, like General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, were no less laudatory during the virtual event. As Ghebreyesus pointed out, the key question at a time like this is simple: “What is it that we are doing for others?”

The fight is, sadly, far from over. As of July 7, nearly 12 million people had tested positive for COVID-19 around the world, and over 500,000 had died from the virus. Over three million of those cases, and over 133,000 deaths, had occurred in the U.S. And a vaccine isn’t expected to be developed until 2021.

“This is not just about survival,” Ghebreyesus said during the virtual conference. “It is about building back better.” He further asked that one and all “commit to action … that empowers and enables health workers as the foundation of the healthier, safer, fairer world we all want.”

Rabbi Herbert A. Yoskowitz and Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman, writing for the Jewish News, likened the courage and dedication of today’s healthcare professionals to that which was displayed by doctors and nurses during the Holocaust. As they put it, today’s workers have “remained true to their professional oaths in spite of everything” and “deserve not only to be remembered, but also to be honored” for all they do.

And yes, the two authors did refer to these workers as “heroes.”

These heroes are people like Ashley Robinson, a nurse at New Orleans East Hospital. One day, she told NPR, she found herself so overwhelmed by the influx of coronavirus patients that she withdrew to an isolated area of the building, FaceTimed her husband and broke down in tears.

“At that moment,” she said, “I felt defeated and wanted to give up. But I realized the situation was much bigger than me. As a leader, I had to stay strong because not only the patients depended on me, but my co-workers also.”

And they are people like Dr. Jessica L. Israel, senior vice president of geriatrics and palliative care at RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey. She told the Harvard Business Review that she was part of one of that facility’s goals-of-care conversation teams — i.e., teams staffed by psychiatrists, geriatricians and primary-care physicians that kept families abreast of patients’ conditions. That has been especially important during this crisis, given the need to quarantine.

Dr. Israel said the teams were disbanded as the demand for their services diminished, but that it is something Barnabas’ leadership team plans to revisit in the future, given all they provided.

Finally, there is Susie Palmer, activities director at Bridgeport (W.Va.) Health Care Center. Understanding that residents required more attention than usual during the pandemic, she met with them one-on-one in their rooms. Music was played, she told WBOY. There was dancing in the hallways. Anything, Palmer said, “to make them happy.”

She too described those on the staff as “heroes,” and said everybody has pulled together that much more during the pandemic. Such are these bonds that she can’t stay away, even though she is retired.

“My heart’s with these people,” she told WBOY. “I can’t leave. They’re my family, you know?”

That kind of response is special, and above all else, heroic. 

It is, after all, not the context or complications in which one finds oneself that determines who gets to wear that label, but rather one’s response to those extreme circumstances. They deserve every accolade they receive, and then some.

Melissa Powell is COO of The Allure Group.

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