Health-care workers: Life on the pandemic’s front lines
The situation in New York City hospitals is “‘post-apocalyptic—like in one of those movies I used to watch,’” emergency nurse Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez told Ariana Eunjung Cha in The Washington Post. As the city’s Covid-19 death toll passed 1,000 this week, and with the “apex” of infections and deaths still weeks away, New York health-care workers are already close to their physical and emotional breaking point. With personal protective equipment (PPE) in short supply, doctors and nurses are reusing disposable masks and wearing goggles and helmets and even plastic bags brought from home as they navigate hallways and waiting rooms filled with coughing, gasping, dying patients. These heroes are working 12-hour shifts to save lives even as they know that they could be next, said Bari Weiss in The New York Times. The now-common task of intubating Covid-19 patients with pneumonia requires medical workers to insert a plastic tube down a patient’s throat, often resulting in coughing that sprays the worker with droplets teeming with the virus. Hundreds of U.S. doctors and nurses have already become sick. Hospital staffers in their 20s and 30s are “drawing up their wills,” choosing surrogate parents for their orphaned children, and scrubbing themselves raw in the shower, conscious that even “a trace of the coronavirus under a fingernail or on a strand of hair” could cost them—and family members—their lives.
And the real horror still lies ahead, said Jennifer Senior, also in the Times. Without enough ventilators and intensive-care beds, doctors may have to make unilateral decisions about who gets treatment and who is left to die. For people who’ve dedicated their lives to saving others, making these decisions may inflict “moral injury” like that suffered by soldiers in war zones. The result: nightmares, guilt, and lasting trauma.
Yet doctors and nurses keep showing up to work, said Leslie Marshall in FoxNews.com. In New York, in fact, some 76,000 retired health-care workers have volunteered to work on the front lines, as has my own husband, an orthopedic surgeon. Why? They “took an oath” to care for the sick, and deeply feel “a responsibility to help stop the spread of this virus.” This is doctors’ “version of running into a burning building,” said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. Our country isn’t even providing them with sufficient protective equipment, yet still they care for the sick, simply because it is “what they do.” When this is over “we must be forever grateful, and we should not fail them again.”
Don’t assume doctors and nurses will keep showing up, said Dr. Thomas Kirsch in TheAtlantic.com. As the number of cases soars, and more and more of us get sick, “I am afraid a tipping point could happen with little warning.” Facing an impossible caseload and insufficient beds, a dire shortage of PPE, and the high likelihood of infection, some doctors and nurses and poorly paid support staff may stop coming to work. We have families. We are scared. “Our duty is not boundless.” To avoid a worst-case scenario, the government must do “dramatically more” to support those of us on the front lines—with more PPE, yes, but also with free places to stay so we don’t infect our families, and a guarantee of “preferential access to care and medications” if we ourselves get sick. If society does not take care of the caretakers, at some point soon “the system could break, and we will all be gone.” ■