“Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”
— Victor Frankl
Excited about landing my first job as a nurse (AT), I texted a friend of mine about it. Immediately, I was praised for being a “hero.” I was flattered and puzzled at the same time. Two days later, another friend of mine sent me money captioned with, “Thank you for being a good human nurse.” I was told to use the money for snacks and coffee. Though I found these gestures to be uplifting and encouraging, it also made me wonder how my friends perceived my situation as a nurse, given the fact that, at that time, I haven’t done anything that might be considered heroic. Did they assume that I have to make unreasonable sacrifice for the greater good? Were they thinking I needed consoling because my work has brought me face-to-face with mortal danger?
In early April, I (FL) came home to discover a bag of face masks hanging by my apartment door. Inside was a moving note from my neighbor, extoling how, as a nurse, I deserve the highest praise and admiration. How disappointed they would be to find out that I am no longer a bedside clinician. I was working comfortably from home, zooming in and out of online teaching and endless faculty meetings. I felt like I was riding on the coattails of my PPE-clad colleagues, clandestinely absorbing the reflected glow of the spotlight that doesn’t belong to me. Here we (AT and FL) acknowledge with full hearts that we have no claim to the muscular title of hero, but we share our reflection on the prevailing hero worship of healthcare frontliners.
The reluctant heroes
The pandemic forced many healthcare professionals to work under dangerous conditions. The lack of PPE combined with the threat of contagion made many hospital environments more hazardous places than they typically are. Driven by moral courage, many healthcare professionals soldiered on, an act many perceived as heroic. It did not take long until these actions were celebrated in public and catapulted the image of frontline healthcare workers as masked superheroes who dwell among us.
People seen by the public as heroes, such as firefighters, shun the label. They downplay their efforts to simply “just doing our job.” Being accorded hero status carries the psychological burden of relieving the terror of horrific events, an unwelcome reminiscence. Arthur Ash, the only African American man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon and the US Open, said “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” This is embodied by Wesley Autrey, the man who leaped onto a New York City subway track in 2007 to save someone who fell while having a seizure. He said he didn’t feel he did something spectacular, only what was right.
Knowing the right thing to do and say or emotion to feel can be challenging in a healthcare crisis. On the news, a nurse declared that she felt being martyred against her will. We can only imagine what a heavy psychological burden can that be. Some nurses find the 7 o’clock applause in New York City, a very public display of affection towards essential workers, cloyingly gratuitous. We think this ritual is akin to the Angelus, a daily unmuted communion with fellow humans to simply acknowledge what is; that we are, indeed, alive and clapping. Although we are nurses, we do not feel this fanfare is for us to grab. It is for us to give to the deserving.
Be grateful, it will make you happy
Hospitals received a surge of support from their local community. The staff cried for more PPE, but food came instead. Lots of it. While some wished for hazard pay and student loan forgiveness, fruit baskets and swags were delivered to the unit. In some nurses, this turn of events lead to cognitive dissonance; to express ambivalent gratitude for something they neither needed nor desired. On social media, a nurse pleaded not be called a hero, as if ranting about it would make it go away. One can choose to be grateful, which can foster generosity in return. Or one can decide to wallow in wishful thinking or disguised egoism, which might lead to regret. All emotional responses being valid, it is best to give thanks because gratitude is a gift given in return. It is a reciprocal joy.
The pandemic made manifest the deficiencies of an ill-prepared healthcare system. For some frontliners gratitude doesn’t come easy because work-life became unfair (for example, having to use one N-95 mask for a 12-hour shift). However, we must be on guard not to yield moral courage to nihilistic resentment of the things we cannot change. Gratitude should give pleasure not penance. A study by Emmons and McCullough showed that people with a grateful outlook felt better about their lives, had more optimistic expectations, reported fewer physical complaints, and spent more time exercising. In short, gratitude does the body and soul good, if one has the right attitude. Humility can triumph over ingratitude. To know the difference between what make sense and what does not is the essence of inner peace.
When the COVID-19 pandemic is finally resolved, when another novel issue arises that doesn’t involve healthcare, when the public’s attention is shifted elsewhere, will frontliners still live up to the hero worship of today? We imagine nurses will strengthen their resolve to uphold the public trust with gratitude without conceit or despair. Whether we agree or not, the public needs heroes in this pandemic, if only to give us hope. All things considered, a reluctant hero is preferable to an implacable one.
Fidelindo Lim is clinical associate professor at New York University – Rory Meyers College of Nursing. Angelo Tined is a per diem staff RN at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Emmons RA, McCullough MA. Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;84(2):377-89.
Buckley C. Man is rescued by stranger on subway tracks. The New York Times. 2007, January 3. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/03/nyregion/03life.html