This first appeared in The Havok Journal on April 20, 2020.
I’m beginning to relate to war veterans who squirm uncomfortably when thanked for their service. Not only because I’m married to one, but because I’m getting a glimpse of what it’s like to be called a hero for showing up to work. In this COVID-19 crisis, people working in healthcare have become our latest heroes. Nurses make up the largest segment of healthcare workers and those working on the front lines, providing direct care, don’t have the option of working from home. We have to show up and do our jobs, despite the risk of catching and/or spreading the virus. The general public lauds the efforts of both nurses and service members, and rightly so. I appreciate the extra attention.
At the risk of sounding ungrateful for the attention being heaped on nurses, I’d like to point out that we are exposed to illness, injury, and sometimes violence every day. We face threats as serious as COVID-19 on a regular basis, just on a much smaller scale. Illness, death, and suffering are part of a typical day at the office for many nurses. People are typically at their worst when they are angry, afraid, and in pain. They lash out, sometimes physically, even at the people trying to provide care.
After years of exposure to this misery, it takes a toll on even the most cheerful and optimistic among us. I wouldn’t show up for my nursing job if it weren’t for the paycheck and I don’t know many nurses who would. Service members, too, are compensated for the work they do. The decision to sign up is often guided by the duty to protect and serve. They don’t go into it for the money, but it certainly helps. And RNs are paid more than most soldiers or sailors.
To be called a hero for doing something that I sometimes hate, something I have to be bribed with a paycheck to do, makes me uncomfortable. People call me a saint or a hero and tell me they could never do what I do. My ego grows a few sizes and I feel the warm glow of being special. Then I show up for work and patients make demands, call me names, and accuse me of not caring enough if they don’t get what they want when they want it. Administrators give me more documentation to complete, more rules to follow, more patients to care for, and less time to get it all done. Some days I’d like to tell everyone to leave me the f@*ck alone. It takes a heroic effort not to do so.
People not working in healthcare have a general idea that nurses face a lot of challenges. They’re sympathetic and often grateful for the work performed by nurses. Similarly, most of us don’t know what it’s like to go to war. We’re thankful for those who have gone. Maybe we’re insightful enough to thank God we didn’t have to experience the horrors they did. Even the most insightful and appreciative among us, however, can’t truly relate unless they’ve been in the proverbial trenches. And to be called a hero by someone who hasn’t been there feels wrong somehow. I can now better understand the ambivalence my husband must be experiencing when complete strangers thank him for his service.
This was first published by Wendy Arena in her blog here on April 1, 2020. It was re-published in The Havok Journal with the permission of the author.
Wendy Arena has been a registered nurse for 22 years, currently works on an inpatient psychiatric unit, and is pursuing a writing career. She is married to a combat veteran who works in a prison. They share some very interesting dinner conversations.