By John R. Mastalski
During this COVID-19 pandemic, much adulation has been appropriately showered upon healthcare workers. My own local community in northwest Washington state has posted signs of gratitude around the two caregiver entrances of our medical center. Even our Catholic healthcare system has posted lawn signs in front of all healthcare facilities saying, “HEROES W♥RK HERE!”
I asked a colleague to take a photo of me standing with one of these signs in front of our medical center – mainly for my elderly parents to see that I am healthy and safe during this crisis.
But over the past few weeks, I have become less comfortable embracing the hero language. So have my colleagues and fellow caregivers; they embrace the gratitude and recognition, but they almost universally shrug off the hero label. As one nurse remarked, “I never signed up to be a hero. I’m just doing my job!”
I don’t think this is humility. Instead, my coworkers don’t identify with the one-dimensional hero image in our culture. Consciously or not, Americans don’t like heroes to question their professional effectiveness, to struggle with being courageous, to be overwhelmed by the weight of the suffering. We don’t like our heroes to nearly collapse from exhaustion or to cry themselves to sleep at night.
Even worse, we don’t like heroes who struggle spiritually or emotionally.
The ancient archetype of the “wounded healer” is much more applicable to our current milieu. During this COVID-19 pandemic, this is the type of healer that I witness in the hallways of our medical center – caregivers who also struggle with their own loss and grief, who worry about bringing the virus home to their families, who remain courageous despite their fears.
The kind of heroes I work with are healers who don’t try to be superhuman. In providing chaplain support to my fellow caregivers, I have seen them show their vulnerability during this COVID-19 pandemic. Many have cried tears of cumulative grief or shared about feeling scared for their kids at home. One worried about her elderly mom who lives in an assisted living facility. “I miss hugging her, but I get to wave at her through the window that looks out on the garden.” Another described talking over the phone to her dad who is in a facility and doesn’t understand why she can’t visit him. “His memory is starting to go, so he thinks I have abandoned him and don’t want to see him anymore. I have to keep explaining this COVID stuff to him. It’s so frustrating!”
But rarely does the vulnerability of these caregivers prevent them from being the kind of healers they are called to be. They stifle the urges to fear, flee, fight, or freeze. They come to work, day after day, and armor themselves up with PPE and hearts full of gratitude.
During this COVID pandemic, we are all keenly aware of our own vulnerability, with our sense of being “wounded healers.” As such, we are healers, not heroes. We do best what we have been called to do – embody the healing mission of Jesus Christ, relieving pain and suffering, and treating each person (including ourselves) in a loving and caring way.
John R. Mastalski, BCC, is manager of spiritual care for the Northwest division of PeaceHealth based at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, WA.