Sian Tsuei is a Population Health Sciences PhD student at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and an affiliate member at UBC’s Centre for Health Education Scholarship.
Dear Friends in Health Care:
I write this letter to thank you for your service. You have helped redefine my understanding of heroism.
When I was young, my teachers used to ask the class to write on who they thought were heroes. Superheroes in comic books were a common theme. Parents were often seen as heroes too. Regardless, it was often somebody we’d like to become. Through the children’s eyes the heroes were superhuman.
A few years later, 9/11 happened. To another generation of kids, the firefighters who rushed into the collapsing World Trade Center became the heroes, seeming much larger than ordinary people, symbols of the fight for freedom, the bulwark against terrorism, the embodiment of altruism.
While I understood that sentiment, I remember thinking that the firefighters were surely just dealing with the calls of duty. They must have factored in their risk preferences. If they didn’t consider the occupational hazards beforehand, that was their mistake.
I now appreciate my own folly.
Sure, occupational risks are part of the game, but nobody signed to up to their job for the occupational risks. They signed up for the opportunity to be of service or even save others. Who knew that they’d be running into a collapsing building when they signed up for boot camp ten years ago?
For health care workers, SARS-CoV-2 is our twin towers. When I entered medicine, I signed up for the possibility of saving lives. Yes, I knew that there may be risks. But the risks that I considered, like the possibility of acquiring HIV from needlestick injury, somehow pale in comparison to the risk of exposure to an easily-spread infection, to which no one is immune and which has led to fatal illness in so many of all ages.
The panic in pandemic-stricken hospitals is clear. News reports project that hundreds of thousands will likely die. There’s panic that even the young and healthy succumb to the disease and panic because the public are mass purchasing health care supplies for their own safety, meaning that personal protective equipment in hospitals may be insufficient.
I used to think that heroes were great human beings that live on accolades and bathe in limelight. Now I see that heroes are normal human beings. They are everyday people with the same sense of fear that all of us face when confronted with a pandemic. The difference is that when they are called to duty, to serve a greater good, they choose to stand and fight for others when they could have ducked the draft, called in sick, or cancelled shifts.
I studied medicine and even finished training as a family physician. But now that I am pursuing academic studies, I have been relegated to a cheerleader on the sidelines like many others. I wish more than anything that my cheers would translate to your survival beyond COVID-19 despite limited testing capacity, personal protective equipment and non-existent cures.
I see you. You’re as strong and as tall as you always were, but you symbolize to me something much greater. When I reflect on the definition of hero, I realize I need look no further than you who are on the front lines, caring for patients who could have the virus, in a facility that may be understaffed or under-equipped to face the pandemic. You show the altruism, leadership, and courage that symbolize heroism.
Your duty calls.