Let us begin with a thought exercise. Close your eyes and picture the word, “hero.” What comes to mind? A relative, a teacher, a fictional character wielding a hammer or flying gracefully through the air?
Several months ago, our country was introduced to a foe that brought us to our knees. Before that time, the idea of a hero had fluctuated with circumstance and had been guided by aging and maturity; however, since the moment COVID-19 struck, a new image has emerged. Not all heroes wear capes, but some wield stethoscopes.
Over these past months the phrase, “Health Care Heroes” has spread throughout our collective consciousness, highlighted everywhere from talk shows and news media to billboards and journals. Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals are lauded for their strength, dedication, resilience, and compassion. Citizens line up to clap, honk horns, and shower praise in recognition of those who have risked their health, sacrificed their personal lives, and committed themselves to the greater good. Yet, what does it mean to be a hero, and what is the cost of hero worship?
The focus of medical training has gradually shifted to include the physical as well as mental well-being of future physicians, but the remnants of traditional doctrine linger. Hours of focused training through study and direct clinical interaction reinforce dedication to patient care. Rewards are given for time spent and compassion lent, and research is lauded, but family time is rarely applauded. We are encouraged to do our greatest, work our hardest, be the best, rise and defeat every test. Failure (or the perception thereof) is not an option.
According to, and associates, physicians have nearly twice the burnout rate of other professionals ( ). The dedication to our craft propels excellence as well as sacrifice. When COVID-19 entered our lives, many of my colleagues did not hesitate to heed to the call for action. They immersed themselves in the ICU, led triage units, and extended work hours in the service of the sick and dying. Several were years removed from emergency/intensive care, while others were allocated from their chosen residency programs and voluntarily thrust into an environment they had never before traversed.
These individuals are praised as “brave,” “dedicated,” “selfless.” A few even provided insight into their experiences through various publications highlighting their appreciation and gratitude toward such a treacherous, albeit, tremendous experience. Even though their words are an honest perspective of life through one of the worst health care crises in 100 years, in effect, they perpetuate the noble hero; the myth of the super doctor.
In a profession that has borne witness to multiple suicides over the past few months, why do we not encourage open dialogue of our victories as well as our defeats? Our wins as much as our losses? Why does an esteemed veteran physician feel guilt over declining to provide emergency services to patients whom they have long forgotten how to manage? What drives the guilt and the self-doubt? Are we ashamed of what others will think? Is it that the fear of not living up to our cherished medical oath outweighs our own boundaries and acknowledgment of our limitations?
A hero is an entity, a person encompassing a state of being, yet health care professionals are bestowed this title and this burden on a near-daily basis.We are perfectly imperfect. The more in tune we are to vulnerability, the more honest we can become with ourselves and one another.
Dr. Thomas is a board-certified adult psychiatrist with an interest in chronic illness, women’s behavioral health, and minority mental health. She currently practices in North Kingstown and East Providence, R.I. She has no conflicts of interest.