Stop Calling Us “Heroes”

Calling healthcare workers heroes seems nice, but does more harm than good

My fellow healthcare workers:

I realize I may be in the minority here, but I wanted to share some thoughts on those “healthcare heroes” signs outside our hospitals.

First, thank you to everyone for what you are doing during this global pandemic. The work you are doing is truly amazing, even heroic. That goes without question.

However, I ultimately believe that labeling ourselves “heroes” does more damage than good. I’ve read pieces from healthcare colleagues across the nation who argue that the “hero label” can be used as a subtle form of (often unintentional) gaslighting.

No one calling us heroes is trying to gaslight us, or put us in an uncomfortable situation, but here are some examples of some of the unintended consequences:

1 — Don’t have enough PPE or safe working conditions? Well, you’re a “hero” to work under those circumstances and heroes don’t complain or demand safe working conditions, they just get the job done. While my current hospital system is fortunate not to be in this situation as they have prioritized securing adequate PPE for all of us, this is a serious issue faced by colleagues in other areas of the country. Some of these “heroes” were fired for speaking out against dangerous working conditions. “You signed up for this” they were told as if the Hippocratic Oath had a section about always agreeing to work in dangerous work environments with suboptimal protective gear.

Nurses and Doctors Speaking Out on Safety Now Risk Their Job. Hospitals have warned, disciplined and even fired staff members who went public with workplace concerns about…www.nytimes.com

2 — As the first wave of COVID-19 was reaching its peak in Italy and New York City I saw several stories of clinicians becoming infected (and some dying) from infections they contracted because they ran into a code blue without proper PPE. There were several clinicians pleading for their colleagues to make sure to don adequate PPE and not just run in unprotected to a code blue. Protecting yourself first is the right thing to do, even in a code situation, as you will be little help to other patients if you are dead, but stopping to don PPE while someone is pulseless certainly doesn’t fit the traditional “hero” ethos.

California nurse treating ‘code blue’ coronavirus patient dies after lack of proper PPE: A nurse in California died weeks after she treated a “code blue” coronavirus patient without wearing proper personal…www.foxnews.com

3 —Clinicians’ burn-out levels were definitely high prior to COVID-19 but have continued to increase. And the New York City medical community was recently rocked when an EMT and an emergency medicine physician, both of whom had been on the front lines combating COVID-19, committed suicide recently. Do “heroes” seek counseling or talk to colleagues when they’re depressed (they should, but I’m talking about the stereotypical portrayal of a hero, here — there are no Marvel movies about Avengers going in for some cognitive behavior therapy)?

Calling health care workers ‘heroes’ harms all of us – STAT. Here’s an unjust fact: Some of the frontline health care workers we’ve been celebrating with social media likes…www.statnews.com

4 — Many of our colleagues, whether it be due to age or medical comorbidities, are at higher risk for developing COVID-19 and worse outcomes, and have been appropriately reassigned to lower risk roles. “Heroes” don’t turn down a rescue mission because their personal risk is too high. The “hero” label does little but cause guilt in many of our colleagues who can’t serve on the front lines due to these conditions.

Anna Wexler, Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine put it this way:

“More perniciously, the hero narrative perpetuates the false notion of health care workers as inherently altruistic, as individuals who will accept the unbridled personal risk, no matter the cost. But in the face of hazardous conditions, there may come a point at which they may not be willing to endanger their own health, nor that of their partners, children, and parents. In the absence of adequate PPE, how much risk can we reasonably ask health care workers to take on?”

“Within the health-care-worker-as-hero narrative, the decision not to work — or to work less, to work in a different hospital, or even in an alternate capacity, such as telemedicine — is nothing short of taboo. It is antithetical to the selfless health care worker stereotype.”

But some people argue that they interpret signs lauding healthcare “heroes” using the nuanced, real-world definition of “heroes”, not the cartoonish superhero version. And I respect that if that’s your interpretation. But that nuance is lost in what has essentially become a public congratulatory campaign. Also “Heroes (but in the real-life sense of the word that allows for all the faults and traits of normal human beings) work here” doesn’t fit nicely on a bumper sticker or a banner.

Reiterating what I said before, I am proud of all of my healthcare colleagues and the tremendous work that we are doing during this international pandemic. If you have no issue with the label of “hero” then I respect that. For me, personally, and I don’t think I’m alone, it feels too self-congratulatory and risks putting superhuman expectations on normal human beings.

It’s one thing for others to call us heroes, it’s another thing to call ourselves heroes. After all, I don’t see firemen (whose actions I often view as heroic) marching into Firehouse Subs wearing shirts that say “community hero.”

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This article lives here: CoronavirusStop Calling Us "Heroes"
Dr Justin Jones
Outpatient doc in Utah. Completed Internal Medicine Residency in Colorado in 2018.

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