Clinical, Featured, Psychiatry
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I Am Not a Hero

When I found out I was going to be deployed to treat patients with COVID, I dealt with a lot of existential dread. I remember feeling like I was leaving medicine behind when I matched to a psychiatry residency, and again after I finished the medicine portion of my intern year.

Psychiatry is so far removed from the rest of clinical medicine, what with their blood tests and easily treatable conditions. I applied to medical school to become a psychiatrist, so as I rotated through the other areas of the hospital, I never felt the sense of belonging that seemed to come so easy to the rest of my classmates. I spent several hours just dreading the fact that I would have to go back to medicine, let alone the fact that I would be taking care of COVID patients.

Adding insult to injury, everyone keeps using the word “deployed.” This word is meant to instill a sense of duty and honor in the person to which it is applied, almost coercing them into accepting their new reality, however horrible it may be. Unfortunately, there really is no better word for what most of us are facing. We have no choice, our lives are potentially at risk, and we are joining flocks of others in the same position.

I am 99% sure I have already contracted the virus. In March, I experienced headache, fatigue, muscle aches, chills and mild upper respiratory symptoms every day for a week. And this was all basically just from taking the subway and working with my psychiatric patients. We are usually six feet apart anyway, even outside the constraints of a pandemic. However, we don’t know anything about this virus. I don’t know if I’m “immune.” The virus could be rapidly mutating or become more fatal with increasing exposure and subsequent viral load. My brother is an attending in the same hospital that I am doing my training and has been working with these patients since this whole thing started. My fiancé is a radiology resident at an even busier hospital and deployment is only a matter of time for her. We all know about the shortage of personal protective equipment at this point. Rumors are circulating that residents are dying all over the country, but media outlets are not covering these stories yet.

My point is, I am not a hero. I am scared.

I’m scared of facing my own mortality. I’m scared of the people I love being hurt by a system that indoctrinated us to accept sacrifice in every sense of the word without a second thought. I’m scared of what “social distancing” is going to do to our society. How long will people be scared to be around each other? When will I be able to hug my parents again? Do heroes feel this way too?

Growing up, I read DC Comics and watched Justice League cartoons, fantasizing about being a hero. Hell, I still do. But I know I’m not a hero. Heroes don’t have anxiety disorders. Heroes don’t try their best to avoid the fight until they’re forced to suit up, and that’s why it remains a fantasy. Maybe it’s just not my cause. Perhaps, one day, something else will happen that will force me into action, much to my surprise. Am I a hero for telling you all how scared I am? I hope not. I’d rather normalize this behavior than have anyone call me heroic. I’d rather that the next kid who feels so anxious and scared be inspired by me to share their emotions with the world as well, and not feel like they have to be a “hero” to do it.

Image credit: Florida National Guard by The National Guard is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Alex El Sehamy, MD Alex El Sehamy, MD (1 Posts)

Resident Physician Contributing Writer

Downstate Health Sciences University

Alex is a PGY-2 psychiatry resident at Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, NY. He is an Alpha Omega Alpha member, a Gold Humanism Honor Society member, an APA Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow, and an amateur cover band musician. His writing can be found on Medium (@StillADoctor).