On Lifting Up Our Front Line

By: Shoshanah Marcus  |  August 29, 2021

By Shoshanah Marcus, Editor in Chief

There is something extremely satisfying about the trip home from work. Many times, especially when there is less traffic, this travel can be a deep exhale that acts as a way to leave the stressors from one’s job outside of one’s home. For most front line healthcare workers, however, this last year and a half has been one very very long day of work. 

Despite this seemingly never ending work day for healthcare workers, even the most essential of personnel do find themselves back at home eventually. While over the last year and a half my home has transformed into the ultimate safety and security from the unknown accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, for most healthcare workers deep uncertainty has permeated into the safe space of their homes. 

The phrase “front line healthcare worker” arose at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as a means of describing those individuals who were directly combatting the virus. Before this, “front line” was a military term describing the soldiers in battle who were closest to the enemy. Just as many soldiers who encounter the brunt of the battle often have difficulty integrating back to their regular lifestyle, so too do front line healthcare professionals. Front line physicians, and especially Critical Care doctors, are put in a uniquely difficult decision because, according to Carolyn Barber in “Critical Care Doctors are in Crisis”, “Physicians, especially intensivists, are trained to react in the moment and to push off emotional considerations for later. In the age of COVID, with its seemingly relentless waves of illness and death, that has proved impossible, in part because ‘later’ never seems to arrive.” 

My father, a Critical Care Intensivist, has been the last face that many patients with COVID-19 have seen, has had to break devastating news to loved ones, and has consoled countless nurses, physician assistants, and doctors who are on the brink of a mental breakdown. My father has recited kadish for many Jewish patients, and he has even recited viduy (confessions) and asked his family for mechilah (forgiveness) during the peak of the virus.

These responsibilities can become extremely overwhelming for frontline physicians, and, according to Barber, “In a recent national survey of roughly 12,000 doctors, more than half of critical care physicians reported burnout.” Barber cites “staffing and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, the death toll, personal safety concerns, a feeling of inadequacy in providing emotional support to patients and their families” as well as “carry[ing] the sadness, blame and grief that’s often directed at them from patients” that “all contribute to a wave of difficulty that, deep into the summer of 2021, continues to build. “

Just as many doctors feel a deeply rooted sense of responsibility to their patients, the community has a responsibility to care for them. With the potential of a new coronavirus variant on the rise, it is time that we as a community protect those who have been fighting the brunt of the battle. Growing up in a family full of healthcare providers, I can say with experience that it is often difficult for those who have such a vast amount of knowledge about the human body to admit that they themselves are in need of help. “More than one in seven ICU staff reported thoughts of suicide or self-harm,” says Barber and therefore it is critical that we as a community have to normalize healthcare providers seeking help. There are many hotlines available including The Physician Support Line, which Barber describes “is a free and confidential service, staffed by volunteer psychiatrists, that offers support for physicians and U.S. medical students.” To reach their hotline, call 1-888-409-0141 between the hours of 8 A.M. and 1 A.M. ET.