Heroism in the age of COVID-19

Joe Camerlengo
Joe Camerlengo

“Heroes” are everywhere these days, at least according to anyone lucky enough to not be labeled one. 

Whether the term is being applied to grocery store employees, gas station attendants, or medical staff on the front lines of patient care, the role of hero is not one for which these workers signed up. Very rarely do I hear Kroger cashiers or nurses say, “Boy, it felt great to be a hero today!” 

Anointing someone a hero in the midst of the pandemic is usually an acknowledgment of society’s willingness to sacrifice this person’s health or safety for the greater good. When a politician or a corporation celebrates this decided heroism, the terminology can take our focus off of the person’s well-being, placing these workers on the level of Batman rather than fellow citizens of Gotham City who deserve help and empathy.

However, one group of true heroes has been largely overlooked since the pandemic began: patients like those whom I care for at my job.

Patients in health care settings around the country cannot see their families or friends, so they are living out their darkest moments entirely alone, from morning to night, every day. On occasion, a patient will wait at their window for a spouse or a child to drive by and honk, a fleeting moment to break up days or weeks of complete isolation.

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Even within the facilities, these patients only have cautious interactions with medical staff dressed in dehumanizing levels of personal protective equipment (PPE), similar to the scariest scenes in the movie “E.T.” I’m lucky enough to drive home to my beautiful wife and cats after my nursing shifts end, so the harsh reality of my patients is one that I can barely perceive, and it’s one I wouldn’t want to.

I recently took part in a teleconference between an off-site oncologist and a particularly endearing patient. The interaction took place on an iPad, and there was a cellular phone placed in front of the screen and set to speaker mode so that the patient’s spouse could hear the conversation from a third location. 

Through technological hiccups that made the communication spotty and awkward, the oncologist informed this patient of their heartbreakingly poor prognosis. The patient had to lean in toward a screen as they listened to the limited treatment options, while their spouse was forced to grieve in isolation by phone.

As the patient discussed their imminent future with the oncologist, the only person they could see in the room was me, wearing two masks (an N95 covered with a washable cloth mask) and plastic goggles. Although the oncologist was extremely professional and skilled in handling the difficult conversation, my heart shattered as I watched the patient process the news under these unforgiving circumstances. 

And yet this patient somehow remained composed and positive, defying my comprehension. The patient insisted that they would undergo any treatments that would allow them to see “a good 48th anniversary” with their partner this year. After the call, I stayed with the patient for some time, when we somehow discussed the movie “Forrest Gump,” Watergate and our respective wedding anniversaries.

I left the room totally shook. I was still shook the next day as I sat down on my couch in tears to write this.

While I have previously cared for people in their dying moments, and I have seen people persevere through all types of complex medical issues, the absolute isolation that currently surrounds patients in their darkest moments is remarkably difficult. 

It’s harder than a “stay at home” order. It’s harder than wearing a cloth mask in public and washing your hands. It’s harder than taking to the internet to write a million words about being a hero.

I’m just a nurse, which, yes, is an admirable career choice, but it’s still my chosen profession. Those patients and families enduring this tragedy alone are exhibiting true strength. They are the real heroes.