Heroes From a Distance, ‘Lepers’ Up Close?

What your doctor is reading on

APRIL 08, 2020 — Heroes.


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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