Like many I have been really touched by the groundswell of support from the public. But there’s a problem with this hero image.
It’s not just that many NHS staff are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with being hailed as heroes for what they see as simply doing their jobs. Of course, we were going to step up to the plate when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. As doctors it was our duty. There was never any question.
But there’s something more than just feeling undeserving of the cape weighing heavily on our shoulders. The worst thing about being seen as a superhero? Very few think to ask if you’re OK.
And herein lies the problem. Because healthcare workers are not heroes, we are human. Completely, painstakingly, fallibly human.
Superman said this: “A superhero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles”.
But I disagree.
We need to stop encouraging this image, one that can begin to form from the first day of medical school, that of the perfect doctor: who never falters, never fails and absolutely never falls ill.
Maybe it’s easier for people to think of us this way. I’m probably jaded having seen far too many good colleagues burn out; I’ve been on the brink myself at least once. But the cynic in me remains wary that the coopting of this “hero image”, like the concept of “resilience”, is being used to justify increasingly unsustainable working conditions in the NHS, without care for the needs of those who care for others.
And what of those who do falter on the frontlines of an already incredibly difficult job? It is more common than you might think. Worryingly, even before the pandemic almost of third of UK doctors were showing symptoms of burnout.
These struggles are hidden by some who suffer them. But you can see the cracks if you look carefully. In the red eyes that emerge from cupboards on the wards. In the weathered faces of battle hardened seniors who constantly ask trainees what their “exit plan” is.
Despite many healthcare workers clinging on to what little morale was left by their clean short fingernails, when the pandemic hit everyone willingly put their nose to the grindstone. For as long as they could bear it, and then some.
Many watched a tragedy unfold before their eyes, unable to even flinch behind their PPE, and then cried in their cars on the way home. Their one moment to sit alone with their grief. Are they somehow less resilient, less worthy of hero status?
This is the crux of issue. And it is this that needs to stop.
Because the truth is, when the mask is lifted, healthcare workers are just ordinary human beings: who care, who feel, who make mistakes, and deserve to be treated as such.
After the second wave nearly half of ICU staff were showing symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. But no one will have escaped without enduring some moral distress due to the sheer scale of suffering they have borne witness to.
Being human should not be the secret identity that we so carefully keep under wraps. It is time we normalise our jobs and all that we inevitably take home with us. Because if we keep putting this hero image of medics on this pedestal that no-one can ever hope to reach, who will be brave enough to say “you know what, I’m really not OK”?
There are no quick fixes here. However, humans cannot be expected to function well without attention to their basic needs. Making sure every member of NHS staff has access to hot food including at night, water and a place to rest sounds like a good place to start.
So, no offence Superman, but I think Hercules said it better:
“A true hero isn’t measured by the size of their strength, but by the strength of their heart.”
We’ll have the masks, but you can keep the capes.
Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden is a senior registrar in intensive care medicine
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