As the world struggles with the coronavirus, our healthcare heroes are going above and beyond, working selflessly for the greater good.
It is the nature of the healthcare business: When the people we serve are at their worst, those on the front lines are expected to be at their best. In times of disaster, pandemic or individual catastrophe, people look to their doctors, nurses and other providers for skilled, empathetic, reassuring care.
Now, as the world struggles with the coronavirus, our healthcare heroes are going above and beyond, working selflessly for the greater good. Carley Rice, a registered nurse in the surgical ICU at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia, is just one example. Lately she―like many of her peers―has been forced into an additional role: comforter. During a short span marked by an unexpectedly high number of deaths, Rice has used FaceTime and other technology to connect patients in their final hours with family members from whom they’ve been separated. In a March 31 interview with CNN host Chris Cuomo, Rice credited her faith for giving her strength. “This is what God wants me to do,” she said.
It’s a calling, to be sure. On the best of days, the healthcare profession can be grueling, an unforgiving grind of long hours, high pressure (and even higher stakes), and separation from loved ones. Whatever is going on in a worker’s personal life, he or she is expected to set those concerns aside while helping patients and their families through their sickness, pain, trauma and confusion. That’s not easy, but it gets done day after day and night after night.
At times like now, in the face of a global crisis, healthcare workers’ efforts can border on superhuman. But it does these heroes a grave disservice to think of them this way. They are not superhuman, after all. They are our very human brothers and sisters, children, parents, neighbors and friends. They are us. And they are subject to exhaustion, burnout and sickness, as well as the full pendulum of human emotions. Recent statistics have shown increasing levels of burnout and stress among doctors and other healthcare workers, in many cases leading to depression and even suicide. An October 2018 report in The Nation’s Health cited research showing links between burnout and the risk of medical errors and healthcare-associated infections. The risks grow progressively greater with the challenges.
Yet, we continue to see examples of how “the beast”—as the coronavirus has become known to many in the industry―has brought out the best in many of those who have committed their lives to keeping people healthy. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, clinicians, technicians, aides, admissions personnel, pharmacists, food services staff and others continue to do their jobs professionally and caringly.
Home healthcare workers, who assist more than 10 million Americans, face their own set of challenges. They must take extra precautions to minimize the risk of getting a patient sick while not compromising the quality of care. They also need to keep themselves healthy, which often means securing their own personal protective equipment. And they face lost income when patients cancel appointments as a result of coronavirus fears (elderly or disabled patients are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19).
Hospice professionals, many of whom go into patients’ homes, have been forced to adapt to organizational policies that have changed almost daily in response to the virus. Limits on visitors continue to be tightened, and many facilities screen visitors multiple times a day for symptoms. Hugs, often an integral part of compassionate palliative care, are off-limits thanks to distancing guidelines. Yet tender loving care must still be demonstrated.
On top of the physical, mental and emotional toll of the job, amid the pandemic some healthcare workers also have been forced to make economic sacrifices, including furloughs, reduced hours and other hits to their income. That’s not surprising, given the widespread economic collapse triggered by the coronavirus: More than 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in March, including a record 6.6 million in the last week of the month. As but one sign of the unpredictability wrought by the virus, while some healthcare personnel are losing work, others are being called out of retirement—and answering that call despite their own heightened risk.
Someone will inevitably say about those who wittingly put themselves in harm’s way: “They knew what they were getting into.” True, perhaps, but does that make their sacrifice any less heroic, selfless or inspiring? The fact that they understood the risks yet chose to serve anyway should set an example for each of us.
You don’t have to be a frontline worker to make a sacrifice for the cause. On March 31, for example, HCA Healthcare announced measures designed to avoid furloughs. And Anthem announced that, effective April 1, it would waive cost sharing through May for plan members being treated for COVID-19.
If you are one of those heroes on the front lines of healthcare, thank you for your sacrifice. As you serve, please don’t neglect the measures that keep you safe. The same goes for those of us whose responsibility it is to support the ones on the front lines. If you’re an employer of these heroes, or if you’re a patient, don’t let them forget how valuable and how appreciated they are. Wherever each of us fits in the big puzzle, let’s all be caring and responsible as we seek to “flatten the curve.” Even if your sacrifice is something as simple as heeding local recommendations on social distancing, remember: We’re all in this together.