In late April, I read about an ER doctor in Manhattan who had committed suicide. Her father said, “She tried to do her job, and it killed her.”
I tweeted a link to the New York Times article with the below text:
The MD BIL who persuaded me to pursue #publichealth instead of social work told me #moralinjury could kill me:
being deprived, systemically, of the ability to do the right thing.
This doctor was—IS—a hero.
Had we better systems,
she could have remained a *living* hero.
I followed up that
The one person still in my life since I was born is a nurse. She told me she’s trying to survive these days without serious trauma.
I told her it sounded like she was describing trying to survive moral injury. She said that was exactly it.
Today, I saw on Twitter that the doctor about whom I read in April had been profiled in the New York Times. I read the article with aching heart, after which I tweeted a link with the words:
“Still, when the casualties of the coronavirus are tallied, Dr. Breen’s family believes she should be counted among them.” After reading this, I agree. Completely.
I followed up that
Recently texted dear family friends, married nurses, on being reminded “once again, how much care and fortitude are involved in nursing. I am so grateful for you & so absolutely livid that you are, it feels, being punished for your caring. You deserve better.” Dr. Breen did, too.
What’s funny about my April post is that I called Dr. Breen “a hero.”
I don’t believe in heroes. As I wrote three years ago, I believe in hero-ing. That’s to say, I believe in “hero” as a verb, not a noun. I wrote about this last month:
“hero” not as a binary trait attainable by a few
but a verb achievable
every day, by
When I wrote these words in June, I wasn’t thinking about the dangers to so-called “heroes” of using “hero” as a noun. I just loathed how hero-as-noun deprived most of humanity, unjustly and potentially catastrophically, the opportunity to hero out of the blue today or tomorrow, should such opportunity arise.
(Does humanity benefit more from heroes, or from everyone understanding they may be called upon, and may choose to, hero today, no matter what they did every other day before today?)
Today, I began to see the personal dangers of doctor-hero-as-noun thanks to one in a thread of tweets inspired by the NYT’s piece on Dr. Breen. Wrote Dr. Esther Choo:
I think the “hero” rhetoric, as well intentioned as it was (seriously, we appreciated the compliment) also makes it harder to admit feelings of despair, defeat, and fatigue.
I still haven’t quite worked out my definition of what it means to hero. I think it comes down to being willing to improve someone’s life at potential expense of one’s own, but that’s a very, very tentative working definition.
I don’t believe in heroes. I do, however, believe that some people might be particularly inclined to hero. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that, while not denying anyone else the joy and privilege of heroing.
And so, when I think of Dr. Breen today, I think, “Man, did she know how to hero!”
I just wish … we had systems that had enabled her to hero on her own behalf.
If we did, she might be alive to hero again today, and tomorrow.
If we want to enable more heroing, we need better systems:
systems that enable people to acknowledge, without punishment, when they are hurting,
to hero twenty times one day and then barely be able to crawl out of bed the next fifty,
to love and appreciate people whether or not they ever,
one single time,
When we acknowledge that everyone, everywhere is capable of hero-ing,
we take a load off those we currently expect to be “heroes”—
by evidencing understanding that being human is messy,
and hard, and hurt-filled, and confusing
(on the best of days),
and giving everyone a chance to not only hurt
but to be the inspiration
for hurts, at long last,
finally, given a chance