We Are All First Responders, or, The Trope of Medical Heroics
Are you an EMT?
Are you an ER nurse?
Are you an infectious disease doctor?
Are you an ambulance driver?
Are you an anesthesiologist?
Are you a respiratory therapist?
Are you a retail pharmacist?
Are you a hospital kitchen worker?
I’m not any of those things. Few of us are.
But I am a first responder, and so are you. Or, if you’re not, you ought to be.
There is an alive-and-well soap operatic trope operating in technicolor in our world that says these professionals are the boots on the ground, that their calling is to act as saviors for the rest of us, that self-sacrifice is why they made the professional choices they did.
That may be true, but they’re just as human as you and me, and even more vulnerable than most of us. Whilst a tickertape parade is fun, they need a whole lot more in real life than they do on the soaps. The coronavirus is not a storyline — it’s a real live, real-time pandemic.
An anesthesiologist quoted in The New York Times this week was asked by a high school friend who does not work in health care, “‘How are you feeling aside from all this?’” And she said: “‘There is nothing besides this.’”
For her, as someone who is called upon to intubate those suffering from coronavirus, of course there isn’t. For the rest of us, there is.
There is the responsible and responsive management of our own first responses.
A grateful spouse of an organ transplant patient in The Times’ Letters to the Editor this morning
recommended that “On March 30, National Doctors Day, could we all join together in a moment of solidarity, and take one minute, say at noon Eastern time, to stop what we’re doing, and just cheer, applaud, bang some cans, wherever we are, for all the selfless people who are endangering themselves and their loved ones for all of our benefit — then post a photo via social media? These heroes deserve our recognition and our deepest gratitude.”
The heroes who choose to be heroes do deserve our recognition and our deepest gratitude. They also deserve a big something else.
Enough personal protection equipment to ensure their safety.
Enough ventilators to treat their ailing patients.
Enough time off to get away from the trauma of the pandemic.
Enough connection to be nourished in the face of the isolation.
Enough support to stay emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy.
Enough whatever-it-takes to stay physically healthy.
See a theme?
And there isn’t enough of any of that list, not in the U.S., and not in time to make a difference.
People who are staying home are hoarding masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, cleansers, gloves.
Dr. Joshua Weiner is a transplant surgeon in New York. The subtitle of his article says a lot, “Empty gestures of solidarity aren’t going to bring back the gear that has grown legs and walked out of my hospital.” His controlled outrage fed mine this morning.
His father sent him an email with the title #Solidarityat8, and asked if he had any thoughts. His answer is too good not to quote it at length.
“Yes, I have a few thoughts.
“As a devoted nonmember of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and a conscientious objector to any internet meme or trend since AOL chat rooms, I learned that #Solidarityat8 is a moment of public silence, cheering or clapping at 8 p.m. each night to ‘show support for health care workers.’ It’s a time when the world, or at least the Twitterverse, honors my colleagues and me with a communal offering of thanks.
“I am a health care worker, a transplant surgeon in New York. Those who are about to run into the pandemic without adequate gowns, masks or hand sanitizer do not benefit from a confusing mixture of appreciative noise and not-noise any more than would firefighters about to rush into a fire without gear.
“Like many internet movements, the idea is misguided. It is a salve only to those who are already hiding in their dens stocked up for winter. A perfect activity for the internet age, it’s a low-investment, risk-free way to wear the mantle of the moment without owning it. It is noise without action; pontificating about politics without running for office or voting.”
Here is where we’re all called to be first responders, Beloved. To own it, our part in it. Here. Right here.
So go ahead cheer, and … share.
So go ahead cheer, and … act.
So go ahead cheer, and … open your heart.
So go ahead cheer, and … give as much as you can.
His suggestions are sane, ones that any one of us who is hoarding supplies can fulfill, a response that says, “Yes, I see you. You are human as am I. Because of that singular similarity, I will help you.” Dr. Weiner assures us that if we’re home and self-distancing, we don’t need the kind of protective gear that those who will be exposed to the virus do.
“I propose setting up a service where people who want to show their appreciation for health care workers can safely provide the medical materials from their own homes. They can donate or be reimbursed (but not at price-gouging costs). You can view this as doing your part. Or you can view it as helping to put the resources where they are needed to prevent the pandemic from spreading (in your interest) or to treat you if you get sick (also in your interest). Please do this instead of yelling out your window tonight. Give it a hashtag if you would like.
“Until a public system exists, here are two excellent websites for donating medical equipment to hospitals in the New York area. These websites streamline donations and route supplies directly to the front lines.”
I’ll write the hashtag.
“Doctors will take care of coronavirus patients no matter what happens. Most of us are not resentful of the burden but instead excited to be useful. As the chair of my hospital’s surgery department wrote so eloquently in one of his daily missives: ‘Remember that our families, friends and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege!’”
We are each a first responder, Beloved. Maybe not medical first responders, but we are spiritually responsible for our own responses to the crisis. We are meant to give whatever we can however we can during this pandemic. Because we are all human. The first place we can start is in our own hearts.
Let’s overturn the “Grey’s Anatomy” trope, shall we, and instead dig deep, and give what we can to make sure there is #enoughforhealthcare. Let’s take #meaningfulaction in behalf of our compatriots, fellow humans all. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
P. S. And then, after the crisis is over, let’s lobby Congress to forgive every penny of educational debt that any medical first responder has incurred.