Because they won’t tell you…

Elizabeth Koenig, Bellevue, Wash.

I’m talking about your doctors and nurses. Your pharmacists and medical assistants. Your radiology and lab technicians, therapists, medics and all the other health care workers who are there for us whenever we’re sick or hurt. Right now, they’re exhausted and stressed-and they need you. How do I know?

Because I am one. Inspired by my great-uncle Richard (Dick) Larson, MD, who served for many of his 38 years in Velva, North Dakota, as its only physician, I became one. And let me tell you, medical folks are sloggers. They’re always working really hard to “just get the job done.” They’re also stoic, by both nature and training. When was the last time you heard yours complain?

Now, don’t get me wrong, stoicism can be good. If you’re in a car accident, for example, a lack of self-focus helps your emergency team help you. But medical stoicism is not helping anybody right now. How do I know? Because of a very strange story….

But first let me tell you: I was born in Montana and raised (a proud Republican) in Spokane, WA. Traditional values, like personal responsibility and autonomy, run thick in my blood. As a Christian and disability psychiatrist, however, I also know that everyone needs help sometimes, and that community supports are lifelines for some. So, politically I’m mixed. With that disclosure, here’s my story:

Around 2014, I got concerned about the many viruses that have the potential to cause pandemics. Wanting to raise awareness, I decided to write a novel. Wanting to be accurate, I researched deeply-viruses, treatments, and how best to manage pandemics. Then I discovered I didn’t know very much about writing, so I went back to school to learn how.

On February 28, 2020, as I worked on yet another draft, my fiction collided with reality when my husband looked up from his phone and said, “It’s here.”

What he meant was the illness that was terrorizing China, now called COVID-19. A physician and administrator for a hospital near Seattle, he’d just heard that one of the first people infected inside the United States had been admitted.

Health care workers in our area were quickly concerned. We didn’t have enough personal protective equipment. We knew very little about the virus and how best to treat it. It was killing people fast, filling our hospitals, and many of my colleagues (and also a relative) became seriously ill. One even required ECMO, a costly, last-ditch treatment that removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen to the blood by running it through a machine.

All of us were particularly concerned about our providers who are the most experienced. These are the people (the oldest) who are most likely to get sick and die. We worried for them, but also for us, the people who will need them to deliver our babies, or to treat our diabetes, or cancers or whatever health problems we’re sure to develop in the future.

Unfortunately, health care workers are particularly at risk from COVID-19. Not only are many of them dying, but some are becoming disabled by long-term COVID, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. And some are just burned out and leaving. Even suicide, which was a growing problem in physicians before the pandemic, is a risk. Since March, many health care providers I know have struggled significantly with depression and stress.

If there were other ways to minimize the costs of this virus besides masks, hand-washing, and social distancing, doctors would be all over them-and you would know! But this is all we have. Even though vaccines are coming, with how quickly the virus is spreading, we have to do everything we can, now.

Take it from a doctor who had to go back to school to learn how to write: We can’t all be experts at everything. When I have an electrical problem, I need an electrician; a car problem, a mechanic. In the case of pandemics, the people we want to listen to are those whose life work is public health. I know, because I’m a doctor-and more, because I researched pandemic management for a book.

Everyone who gets sick, and everyone who spreads the virus without ever feeling sick, is putting the lives and health of our medical teams (as well as others) at risk. So, our healthcare workers need you-to follow their recommendations. At the heart of it, this is about us, people who believe in stepping up and doing the tough work, people who understand that sometimes we set aside things we deeply cherish for something that’s temporarily more important. Please, help our medical teams help everyone-both now and later.

Wear a mask

Wash your hands

Socially distance and avoid social gatherings

Don’t get sick


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