We must take care of those who take care of us
© Getty Images

Virginia had its first confirmed COVID-19 case on March 7. For the past two months, all across the nation and the world, our medical first responders have gone to work every day to serve as our front lines of defense against this virus.

They are the EMTs who staff ambulances. The law enforcement officers who respond to emergency calls for help. The nurses who triage patients and provide bedside care in the hospital. The respiratory therapists who hold phones to people on ventilators so their loved ones can see them. The social workers who are treating behavioral health issues through telehealth. The nursing home caregivers who take care of our parents and grandparents. And the doctors, who go to the hospital every day to try to save lives.

They have worked, even amid worries that they might run out of personal protective gear. Health care professionals are used to caring for sick people. But they are not used to being at risk themselves from those illnesses. Now, they have the added stress of fearing for their own health, and worrying that they risk bringing this virus home to their families.

ADVERTISEMENT

They have worked, even as the emotional toll mounts. Taking care of other people exacts a higher cost in a situation like this, where we face a virus with no known cure, and which we still don’t fully understand. First responders are trained to face traumatic experiences. But typical traumas have an ending. This pandemic piles on the trauma every day.

Early in my medical career, I served as a U.S. Army doctor in a hospital in Germany, where we treated soldiers injured in the Gulf War. Every day, we treated men and women whose injuries were traumatic and brutal. Every one of them that we saved, we counted as a victory.

We see videos of medical staff lining up to cheer when a COVID-19 patient they expected to lose walks out of their ward. Every person saved is a glimmer of hope in a situation that can feel unrelenting.

I imagine that may be how it felt for Dr. Lorna Breen.

Dr. Breen was the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital — a hospital that was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her family has described her distress about how overwhelmed her hospital was with COVID-19 patients. Patients died in the waiting room before the overtaxed hospital could even admit them.

ADVERTISEMENT

For someone trained to save lives, losing those lives day after day, without being able to stop it, is a huge weight to bear.

Like many of our front-line health workers, Breen eventually became sick with the virus. But it also became clear to her family that she was struggling emotionally. Breen’s sister lives here in Charlottesville, Va., and arranged to bring her home for treatment.

Tragically, Breen took her own life in Charlottesville last month.

She paid the ultimate price for the work she did, and the care she gave to others.

There is a misperception that doctors and other health care workers are too strong to let stress get to them.

Sometimes this misperception is strongest among doctors and health care workers themselves.

But it is not weakness to need help. We are all human.

As a doctor, I know doctors will work themselves into the ground. We are trained to heal people, and to save lives. We take it personally when we lose a patient — now imagine losing multiple patients, day after day. And it’s hard to stop working, when there are still sick people to treat.

I know that much good came from Breen’s life. Now I hope some good can come from her death, and that her loss raises our awareness around mental health in the medical community. Breen’s family has created the “Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Fund” (drlornabreen.com) to support mental health services for health care providers.

I hope our doctors, nurses and all of our first responders will seek help when they need it. Learn what your signs of stress are, and talk openly about mental health in your workplace.

As medical professionals, we need to listen to each other, and notice when one of our coworkers is struggling. We should take the initiative to ask how they’re doing, and push them to take a break. We must change the culture that tells our doctors and medical workers that they should be strong, even at the expense of their own health.

That goes for all of our other medical first responders, as well. There is no shame in asking for help. There should be no stigma in needing a break. No one is superhuman.

Our first responders are bearing the brunt of this pandemic, and we as a society must come together to make sure this message is clear to medical workers: the emotional toll of being constantly exposed to trauma, loss and suffering is not something to bear alone.

Many hospitals are taking their own steps to check in with their front-line workers and make sure they’re getting support. Virginia is using part of a $2 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide additional support for medical workers, through a partnership with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Other portions of that grant will go to our community services boards, which provide public behavioral health treatment in Virginia.

To all of the doctors, the nurses, the physicians assistants and nurse practitioners, the nursing home caregivers, the social workers, the EMTs, the law enforcement officers — everyone on our front lines — I say thank you. Thank you for the work you do every day. Thank you for the stress you have taken on, and the suffering you have helped ease in your patients.

You are doing a good job. You are doing more than most of us ever could. Please take care of yourselves, and watch out for each other. You are not alone.

Northam is the governor of Virginia.