Over these past few weeks we physicians have been thrown into the national spotlight literally risking our lives to care for incredibly sick patients under terrible conditions. We are heroes, at least for the moment, as well as victims of the COVID-19 epidemic that has washed over our country. Social media has become alight with all manner of healthcare workers posting themselves festooned in their protective gear, dancing, hugging, celebrating to the adoration of an appreciative public. I am writing this to appeal to you, to all of you. Please stop posting selfie pics and dancing videos of yourselves on social media**.
I get it, the siren song of the selfie image of yourself wrapped in protective gear, the portrayal of yourself as a selfless, courageous soldier answering the call to battle is too hard to ignore. Your social media posts bring you a form of hero worship that few people could ever hope to achieve. This is the validation that you’ve always known that you’ve deserved, and now it’s here, just like back in the Old Days. Doctors used to get a lot more respect back in the day, at least that’s what the older ones are always saying. Our profession used to inspire television shows, like, Scrubs, House, E.R, and that other one where they’re always hooking up. Oh, that one’s still on? Dear Lord, why?
But anyway, most of them are off the air now, and Silicon Valley is mostly trying to figure out how to replace you with self doctoring robots. Hell, your employers won’t even refer to you has “Doctors” anymore, you’re “Providers” now. I get it. Completely. Totally. Utterly. Get it. I know this because I am one of one of you. I too am a pulmonary, intensive care physician, and I too couldn’t resist the appeal of the self indulgent selfie. And yes, my posts also received the obligatory “your’re so brave, please be careful”-type of validation that I have never in my career experienced. But the fact remains. It’s time to stop.
These days every healthcare worker is posting selfies with themselves dressed up in their gear whether they’re on the front lines, or the back lines. Even cafeteria lines. You got nurses and the TikTok Doc dancing like they just scored a touchdown. I’m not sure if any of you folks are aware of this but maybe I should remind everyone. Nearly all of your vented COVID-19 patients died. 50,000 of them by my last count, probably a few thousand more by the time you’re reading this. We in health care have pretty much had our asses handed to us, so I really can’t figure out what y’all are celebrating. You should be as somber as a team that just got destroyed in the SuperBowl. Not only are we losing, when people are coming to us, we got nothing for them. We have no treatments, no proven medications, no procedures. The only advice we can give people is to avoid getting it, and that by literally eliminating any possibility of contact with all other human beings. This is why you must stop. Please.
It’s gotten so bad that the President. . . The President of the United States. . . is now the nation’s greatest authority on “chloro, uh, hydroxy” something or other.. And yet, somehow, inexplicably, despite the deaths of more than 50,000 souls under our care, WE have been cast not only as heroes but also the victims of this tragedy. And so here it is, if you haven’t figured it out already. This is THE REASON why you have to stop.
Symbols are powerful, they’re totems marking the passage of sentinel events in our history. People connect with them, and they help to humanize events, allowing us to empathize with the people involved in them. After 9/11 there was the imagery of the twin towers crashing. After Katrina there were the images of people stranded on roof tops. Both events spurred the American public to action with record levels of donations and volunteerism. What are those same Americans doing in the face of this tragedy? They’re making masks for healthcare workers, they’re donating money to buy PPE. Around the country church groups are organizing, girl scouts are canvassing, companies are volunteering machinery and equipment. . . to make you a new frigging face shield. Go right now to any of your social media feeds. What volunteer work and fundraising do you see? Have you seen anyone trying to raise money for the more than fifty-thousand victims families? No. People are mostly just trying to raise money in support of healthcare workers. And that my friends, that’s why you need to stop. You have unwittingly taken on the victim role, instead of the true victims.
There’s another tragic consequence to the role that we’ve taken on. People right now are protesting their stay-at-home orders. This pandemic’s lack of symbols has hurt not only fundraising for victims, it’s leading to people taking unnecessary risks. This has been an invisible tragedy, a silent pandemic whose deaths occur in locked ICU wards where families can’t be with loved ones when they die. Tens of thousands of people have left their loved ones to enter an ED or ambulance, only to never be seen by them again. Some can’t even have a proper funeral. People can not fear what they can not see, nor can they empathize with numbers on a screen. In place of the real victims, healthcare workers have become stand-ins, usurping America’s sympathies. And her dollars. That’s another reason that you need to stop.
It’s not your fault, the media bestowed this mantle upon you. You took it to show people how dangerous your working conditions are. You were right to do that, it really should not have gone further than that. Yet it did. But it’s now time for us to return to our primary responsibility, taking care of people. If we can’t cure them when they come in, the least that we can do is shine a light on this tragedy to maybe prevent them from getting sick in the first place, while also honoring the real victims. We have to make people out there understand what the true nature of this disease is. We must bring life to the cold numbers that people are seeing on their television screens, and to do that we need to speak for the victims and their families.
So stop posting about yourself. Post instead about the victims of this tragedy, the real victims. The poor patients who came to us. The poor people who struggled and died. The poor people who pinned all their hopes on the chance that we might be able to save them. We couldn’t, we didn’t and now we should honor them by telling their stories.
I hope that in this way we can move the media’s focus from us to the real victims of this tragedy, and get them the coverage, support, and empathy that they deserve.
**Unless you’re a NYC healthcare worker. You’re a hero so please post whatever you want.
Deep Ramachandran, M.D. is a Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep Medicine physician, founding CHEST Journal Social Media Editor, and co-Chair of ACCP Social Media Work Group. He blogs at Caduceusblog. He is on twitter @Caduceusblogger.