COMMENTARY: Heroes From a Distance, 'Lepers' Up Close?

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APRIL 08, 2020 -- Heroes.

Frontliners.

Soldiers in scrubs.

According to the headlines, that's what we are now in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friends, family, and even complete strangers are showering us with an outpouring of gratitude and appreciation via texts, phone calls, emails, memes, and tweets. Volunteer meal trains are helping keep hospital workers fed on a daily basis; sewing parties are helping to offset the PPE shortage with homemade face masks; and as an emergency medicine physician, I've never seen my field more publicly lauded.

We are the darlings of the news media, but that hasn't necessarily extended to our "off-duty" lives.

During a recent stop at a gas station, a woman saw me in scrubs, immediately pulled her shirt up over her face, rushed to pass me, and said, "Thank you for what you do, but I don't want to get sick."

This was a relatively inconsequential interaction, but it made me wonder: On the way to becoming "heroes," have we also become social lepers?

A colleague of mine is currently sleeping in an RV outside of his home because his wife is concerned about getting infected. His meals are pushed to him on a sanitized tray through a makeshift dog door.

The idea of isolating "dirty" frontliners from their families is so popular that there is even a Facebook group, RVs 4 MDs, with over 16,000 members, designed to help pair RVs with MDs needing alternative sleeping quarters.

Other doctors have been relegated to temporary housing such as motels, Airbnbs, or even their hospital's capsule-sized call rooms.

A well-known ER doctor traveled to New York to help in the crisis, and after working his first shift at the ravaged Bellevue Hospital, found out he was no longer welcome at his brother's apartment where he was staying, banned by the management for concern that he would infect the building.

Physicians with children are mired in even more complex challenges. A coworker of mine, who has a newborn, wears a respirator at all times at home, even while sleeping.

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Another shared that babysitters have refused to come to her home for fear of coronavirus being tracked back from the hospital. Neighbors and family friends who would have regularly watched their kids are refusing to now, similarly concerned that the children of frontliners are more likely to be coronavirus carriers.

A physician father shared a story of how his ex-wife won't allow him to see his own kids because of his exposure risk at the hospital.

Another physician colleague, a single parent, is fielding phone calls from her family members who have threatened to take her kids away to "save" them from infection risk.Working as a physician treating sick patients has always had innate risks, and not just in the age of coronavirus. HIVhepatitisinfluenzatuberculosisClostridium difficile, MRSA—these are just a few of the myriad infectious diseases we're exposed to on any given shift.

As healthcare providers, we are acutely aware of the risks inherent in our jobs, now more than ever.

In today's world, almost every frontliner I know has recently adopted some version of post-shift "decontamination." Whether these rituals objectively disinfect, relieve our conscience, or both, healthcare workers have each devised their own protocols.For me, this means entering the house through a side door, immediately stripping off my scrubs, and streaking across the house into the nearest shower—hoping my husband remembered to close the blinds, or that at the very least, my neighbors have a sense of humor.

Comical as it may seem, it's balanced by the gravity of the truth that as much as the duty to treat patients and help save lives weighs on us, so does the burden of possibly infecting our loved ones.

The risk of passing a lethal real-life contagion is a real one, and there is no perfect solution to a complicated situation. While the world is proactively distancing, I'm not sure we realized that it would specifically distance away from us.

Headlines label us "heroes," but it feels like we can only be heroes from a distance.

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In a time of uncertainty, fear, and tension, we need stability and support now more than ever to continue doing our jobs. The distinction between social distance and complete isolation is delicate. We will always prioritize our families, and all we can ask from them is compassion and understanding.

To understand that we never wanted to choose between family and work, even though now more than ever it feels like we are.

To understand that we may not always ask for it, but sometimes we need help too.

And most important, to understand that we're doing our best—for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our patients.

Amy Faith Ho, MD, is an emergency physician, published writer, and national speaker on issues pertaining to healthcare and health policy, with work featured in Forbes, Chicago Tribune, NPR, KevinMD, and TEDx.

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