An image is circulating on social networks which shows a drawing of a healthcare worker wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE), holding a sick patient’s bed over water as the worker himself drowns.
It’s beautifully drawn and a fitting visual for what the majority of healthcare workers I know are feeling right now.
Before this photo, a meme was circulating showing a drawing of a healthcare worker donning PPE as his open white coat reveals a superhero logo on the shirt below. Before that there was memes with healthcare workers across the United States holding up signs that read, “We stayed at work for you. You stay at home for us.
While I am certainly a fan of the meme at the right time, I have never shared any of these on my social media platforms. I’ve noticed, in my circles, that these memes get a lot of “likes” from healthcare workers or our loved ones, but don’t get much attention beyond that. In other words, I don’t know how much people actually care.
This question of benevolence is one that I grapple with a lot these days as I feel the exhaustion around me at work in the emergency department of my hospital. This time, as our country slips even further down the endless mountain of COVID-19 positive cases in this third and worst wave, exhaustion is different.
At the start of this pandemic, when the death toll from the novel coronavirus was high and all of our systems struggled to find the best way to educate the public, treat the sick, and deal with the deceased, workers in the health were also depleted. But at this time of a kind of national unity around the virus, of hope that a temporary lockdown would “flatten the curve”, the weariness of my peers had another tenor.
It was more physical, long hours spent at work under layers of steamy protective gear, sleepless nights spent worrying about contracting the virus and bringing it home to our families, elaborate routines decontaminate after work.
But with the photos shared on social media of tired faces with facial bruises and nasal bridge ulcers caused by using the N-95, there was a sense of privilege and purpose. To be present at this moment in history and to be able to take care of the masses in need.
Now my colleagues are exhausted and, I’m afraid, not in a way that a few days off or a round of late-night applause can restore.
Compassion fatigue is real, especially during all these pandemic months when it seems like half the population of this country no longer cares about loved ones, neighbors or you.
While the strain on hospital capacity and resources is a very real danger and present in many places in the United States, every healthcare worker I know endures significant psychological distress due to the harshness we perceive around. of us in the world, the oath we have taken to maintain compassion in the face of all this, and the crisis of reconciliation of these two realities.
Although it is clear that many ethnic and racial minorities are get sick immediate family or essential work or care, and that some populations have been disproportionate affected, it is also clear that much of our nation either no longer believes in the seriousness of this disease or no longer cares. In almost every conversation I have with coworkers, the themes are the same: exasperation, amazement, anger.
It is not lost on me, every time I put on my mask to work, that this pandemic has revealed many more hidden masks that have gradually fallen over the months, laying bare the truths we now face. The mask that the majority of the public believes in scientific and public health expertise has disappeared. The mask that our country would easily adopt simple security measures and be unified in our response has disappeared. The mask that, as humans in communities with other humans, we prioritize our most vulnerable members over ourselves, has disappeared.
It leaves me wondering, after all those layers of mask have come off, what’s left: something smooth and featureless, with shallow pits for the eyes and a mouth that doesn’t speak. Something not quite human.
The people who work in the health sector are not historians in the classic sense of the word, but we hold the history of people’s bodies – of the children that came from them, of the families created, of the traumas suffered, of the decisions made. or those taken on a person. We save these detailed stories in the health record, and these stories stay with us: What is your diet like? How did you sleep? Do you feel your heart beating? We don’t have a place yet to record today’s most relevant question: How did you act when your neighbor was in pain?
Healthcare workers holding hands with our elderly as they walk by, then on their way home pass crowded bars – they will remember that. Those who isolate themselves from loved ones, only to read the text strings of extended friends and reunited family members – they will remember that. And those who sweat all day under layers of PPE, never touching their phones, who at the end of the day see their social networks filled with photos of friends taking selfies on their vacation trips, their faces unmasked. in a careless hurry – they will remember it.
We have long memories; those that exist outside of the electronic health records that we keep. And these are times we will never forget.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.