Why do we do this?

By: SCP Health Critical Care Physician*

*All names/places in our “Healing Warrior” guest blog series are deliberately withheld to protect provider and hospital privacy.

While recently working my shift in the ICU, I reacted to an emergency situation in a manner that I cannot fully explain. As usual, it was fast-paced and intense, but this particular experience surfaced some truths about healthcare providers that I hadn’t fully realized until that day.

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Part of my job is to respond to cardiorespiratory arrests when they occur in the hospital. A code blue was called for a rapidly dying patient with a possible COVID-19 infection. I could see that he was not breathing. He needed to be intubated and placed on a ventilator; the room was crowded with panicking healthcare providers administering CPR and resuscitative medication.

Prior to entering the room, I was told that there were no more N95 masks. Although standard surgical masks were available, endotracheal intubation is a high-risk procedure for the transmission of COVID-19—meaning the more protective N95 mask is essential. I was faced with a very short-lived dilemma—without intubation the patient would die, yet without an N95 mask I was taking a risk of self-harm and even death. I hate to admit it, but I am 66 years old with a history of hypertension—I might be considered “high risk.”  

I instantly weighed the probabilities, put on the surgical mask, and plunged myself into the room to prepare for endotracheal intubation. Fortunately, just before intubation someone found an N95 mask which I donned. The patient was successfully intubated—and he survived.

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Why did I do this? I did not know this patient. Yet I was prepared to risk contracting a deadly disease to save his life. More importantly, my death would have a painful, profound impact on my loving wife and family. When I discussed this event with my wife, she appeared disturbed but said in an instinctive and matter-of-fact way, “It’s because God called you to be a doctor.”

As healthcare providers during this global pandemic, we have been worked to the bone. We’re given inadequate protective equipment. We’re grappling with the knowledge that reusing the protective equipment we do have may not be effective to prevent transmission. We’re constantly confronting our own mortality. We’re plagued with guilt that we may be the major contact for the transmission of the disease to our loved ones.

While others are complaining of ‘psychologic trauma’ due to self-quarantine, no eat-in restaurants, closed gyms, and the torture of spending time with their children, we face a real threat and an uncertain future. We receive little recognition for our sacrifice, and most likely our efforts will be quickly forgotten after the pandemic has abated. The patients that we save will most likely never thank us and will quickly disappear from our sight. Our loved ones are suffering, seeing us exhausted and fearing for our safety.

The bottom line is this—we have been called to a noble profession; we make the difference in people’s lives on a regular basis; we are doing something that is meaningful out of love for others.

The definition of “love” has been distorted in today’s society. It is not what we see in Hollywood. Love is self-sacrifice, placing the needs of other people before ours. Love is action that benefits others, not merely emotion. Love is what is done in secret, without recognition or praise.

Healthcare providers are an unusual breed—we want to help others. It is a privilege to be allowed to minister to the weak and to the frail—whether we are physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, custodians, or any other healthcare worker on the front lines each day. I believe that this crisis will draw healthcare professionals closer together, create a lasting bond among us, and teach us to separate the important from the unimportant. It will also bring out the best and the worst in us; it will reveal our true character.

So, I ask again: why do we do these things? It doesn’t seem to make sense. We do not expect to benefit materially or to receive the recognition or praise we deserve. We do this because we are called, we want to serve others, we are noble, and we care. We just DO IT. The COVID-19 pandemic will soon be over, but we will be the better for it because noble character is revealed and perfected though adversity. This pandemic will draw us closer together and teach us what is truly important in our lives. In the future it will hopefully instruct us not to waste our time and effort pursuing the unimportant; rather, to devote our lives to things that make a difference.