Why don’t doctors feel like heroes anymore?


In April 2020, as many Americans prepared to spend the Easter holiday in lockdown, pop star Mariah Carey released a video honoring the “sacrifices and courage” of frontline workers battling COVID-19 – her 1993 hit, “Hero.”

“The sorrow that you know will melt away,” Ms. Carey sang. “When you feel like hope is gone,” the song continued, strength and answers can be found within, and “a hero lies in you.”

For health care professionals, the reality of 2020 wasn’t quite so uplifting. PPE shortages and spillover ICUs had many feeling helpless, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Few if any medical professionals felt their sorrows “melt away.”

We can’t expect depth and nuance from pop songs, but we can find in them the imagery that runs through our culture. The “hero narrative” – the idea that doctors, nurses, and others in health care have superhuman endurance and selflessness – has long been an undercurrent in the medical field.

And yet, without a workforce willing to perform without adequate sleep, food, or time off, the health care system couldn’t function, says Brian Park, MD, MPH, a family medicine physician at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. At many academic health centers, for example, residents are “the bedrock of the workforce,” he explains. If they didn’t work 80-100 hours per week, those systems wouldn’t exist.

So, how do we look at the health care system in a way that is both grateful and critical, Dr. Park wonders. “How do we honor extreme acts of heroism and also acknowledge that the system sometimes gets by on the acts of heroes to patch up some of the brokenness and fragmentation within it?”

Put simply: What makes “heroism” necessary in the first place?

Heroes are determined

Ala Stanford, MD, a pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia, has frequently been called a “health care hero.” Given the title by CNN in 2021, she has received numerous other awards and accolades, featured in Fortune Magazine’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” in 2021 and USA Today’s “Women of the Year” in 2022.

In 2020, Dr. Stanford was sheltering in place and watching “way too much” cable news. “They would play solemn music and show photos of all the people who had died,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘All these people are Black or brown. What is going on?’”

The standard explanation was that people of color were more vulnerable because they were more likely to be essential workers or have chronic health conditions. But Dr. Stanford believed this was only part of the story. The reason she saw that local Black communities had higher positivity rates was because people couldn’t get a COVID test.

Dr. Stanford got call after call from Philadelphians who had been turned away from testing centers. When she questioned colleagues, “they gave me every reason under the sun,” Dr. Stanford says. “It was because someone took public transportation, and they were only testing people in cars, or because they weren’t over 65, or because they didn’t have other comorbid health conditions, or because they weren’t a health care worker, or because they hadn’t traveled to China ...” The list went on.

Dr. Stanford appealed to local, state, and federal health authorities. Finally, she took matters into her own hands. She found tests, packed a van with masks, gowns, and gloves, and drove across the city going door to door. Eventually, she organized testing in the parking lots of Black churches, sometimes seeing more than 400 people per day.

The services were funded entirely through her own bank account and donations until she was eventually awarded a CDC grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and began to receive contracts from the city.

Since then, Dr. Stanford’s mission has evolved. She and her team provided COVID vaccinations to thousands, and in 2021, opened the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity. The center offers primary care for all ages in underserved communities.

Still, Dr. Stanford doesn’t think of herself as a hero, and she stresses that many other people contributed to her success. “I think the world was on fire, and we were all firefighters,” Dr. Stanford says. “Someone said to me, ‘Ala, you ran to the fire and everyone else was running away from it, and you didn’t have to.’ … I feel like I was able to galvanize people to realize the power that they actually had. Maybe independently, they couldn’t do a whole lot, but collectively, we were a force.”


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