Letter To An Indian Healthcare Hero From A US Doctor

Dear Indian Healthcare Hero,

We are methodical, hopeful and optimistic. We don't give up easily and thrive under pressure.

But COVID-19 is something we never trained for. One minute a patient is breathing, the next he is gasping for life. No amount of delivering bad news would prepare you for this. I've been there. You longed to see your patients' faces and for them to see your smile. But a face-shield and mask divide you. The social cues have disappeared from the art of medicine. We went from wearing white coats to hazmat suits. 

The world is shaken with fear. So are you, but you keep going. Struggling to breathe behind the PPE, you often feel numb. Your ears hurt from the desperate cries of mothers, fathers, siblings, children. You try to sleep at night, but you keep seeing their faces.

I too would see patients' faces, after working in the COVID wards at the epicenter of the pandemic in the worst hit country at the time, the United States. What is occurring in India is all too familiar. The trauma of death and the emotional toll of illness is like déjà vu.

Now you stand where I stood. Supplies are short, hospitals in chaos, and bodies burning. You feel a monumental betrayal by the crumbling health care system.

When this peak passes, a sigh of relief will be felt but right now, you're scarred with the wrath of COVID-19. No matter how badly you want to escape the Coronavirus, you can't. Because you have a personal vendetta against it.

When it seems it's over, it's not. This humanitarian crisis is unfolding in various phases around the world with new highly infectious variants emerging with a cure still absent and vaccination efforts slow. Your fear is that it may come back again. This vicious cycle of surges needs to end. Vaccination is the only glimmer of hope but the world hesitates and conspiracies circulate. Vengeance consumes you. The impulse to fight is visceral.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will occur but you will experience post traumatic growth as well. When your heart can't get bigger, it does. When you don't want anything to do with COVID-19, you can't help but do more to fight against it. You will want to quit but you can't. You will volunteer even when exhausted. You will find a louder voice that didn't previously exist to preach science. You will advocate for vaccines and speak about public health in a way you never have before, because now it's truly personal. It's a matter of survival versus 3.3 million deaths. The work always mattered but somehow now it's a ticking bomb and only your words or actions can deactivate it because healthcare heroes are the trusted messenger.

It becomes an addiction that you pray goes away. But something from within energizes you to keep working. When you first put on the white coat, it was a moment of pride. Now, whether it's on or off, you are always on.

Dear Indian Healthcare Hero, keep going. You'll make it through and know an army of white coats around the world stands by you. Allow those tears to flow, anger to rage and frustration to scream because these are the only things that will heal you. You are part of a sacred tribe that never really relied on each other but this pandemic has bound us together through the unbreakable bond of tragedy.

Vaccines have brought this pandemic under control in the United States and it can for India too. We've found our voice for public health advocacy and we won't stop shouting until we are heard. We can't stop, because the COVID-filled world depends on us. Vaccines can and will end this pandemic globally. The public must trust us as we risk our lives for their well-being. This is why we keep marching like soldiers until the gruesome war we never signed up for is over.

(Dr. Asha Shajahan is a primary care physician in Detroit, Michigan, USA. She is also a writer, podcast host, assistant professor and healthcare advocate. She is on a COVID-Community Corps White House and Health and Human Services Committee Chaired by VP Kamala Harris and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.)

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