The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into clear focus the vulnerability of humans and the health care systems that take care of them. We are fighting a virus from which not a person on Earth is immune, and the hardest hit often end up in hospitals that are desperate for resources to manage the huge influxes of patients since the pandemic took hold. Until there is a successfully administered vaccine, interacting face to face with a person who is infected will be dangerous.
Why, then, do millions of emergency responders—doctors, nurses, intake workers, hospital staff, medical technologists, and the thousands of others who support our health care systems—risk their lives for those infected with the novel coronavirus? The answers most certainly are varied, but one thing is certain: From the stark relief of COVID-19, the frontline health care hero has emerged.
Personal courage and professionalism are certainly part of the explanation of why these workers are heroic. Every day, we see the health care labor force show up for work. And from this workforce, we learn about the horror stories—how so many have no choice but to gamble with their own lives, not only because they are exposed to the most sick for the longest periods of time, but because of personal protective equipment shortages, inadequate lockdown laws, and chronic staffing and funding shortages. Day after day, month after month, health care workers and those who support them put the interests of patients and the public before their own.
As of July 29, the New York Times recorded more that 4.3 million cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States and 150,000 deaths. In mid-June, the Times also reported that the nation’s largest nurses’ union, National Nurses United, put health care worker fatalities at 939 based on reports from its chapters around the country, social media, and obituaries. Because of near-constant exposure to patients infected with the virus, health care workers’ lives are threatened more than many others’. They witness not only the daily devastating death tolls, but how those who have died have died alone. The trauma caused by this deadly virus will undoubtedly echo for all of us for decades to come, but perhaps most strongly for those who work in health care.
As one health care worker—Linda Ruggiero, a nurse treating patients in a COVID-19 unit in the greater Philadelphia area—describes her day: “I basically go to work, bike home crying, and when I’m home, I can’t see anyone.”
Ruggiero says she knows people are frustrated and restless about closures. She, too, hopes to be able to do things like exercise regularly and see friends, but then she remembers how a patient she treated grabbed her and would not let go when she went into his room.
“He couldn’t speak because of his trach, and I am not sure he even knew who I was or where he was, but he would not let go of me.”
He grabbed onto her shoulder while she was leaning over him flushing his feeding tube, pulled her to him, put his arm around her, and just hugged her.
“It was almost like this instinct to hold on to something,” Ruggiero says.
She adds that the patient’s children were devastated they were not able to be with him. When she went to work the next day, she learned her patient had died in the night.
Much like 9/11, many of us have begun to think in terms of life before COVID-19 and life after COVID-19. But for our health care workers, right now, there is simply immersion in a nightmare that does not end. We will hopefully soon find a vaccine and ways to administer it fairly and quickly. Until then, we will keep fighting for our lives, led by and cared for by our health care workers.