An Open Letter to Our Brothers and Sisters in Medicine
Gratitude from the former U.S. surgeon general and executive director of Doctors for America
Every day over the past few weeks, our thoughts have turned constantly to you, our friends and colleagues around the world. We have been in awe of your determination, courage, and sacrifices in the face of Covid-19, a global crisis the likes of which none of us have seen in our lifetimes. From Wuhan to Lombardy to cities and towns across the United States and beyond, we have watched doctors, nurses, and an array of health care workers racing to save lives under extraordinary circumstances. A growing number have even lost their own lives to protect their patients and all of humanity.
One image sticks in our minds: a resident physician just a few months shy of graduation, clad in full protective gear, saluting the camera as she starts her day in the ICU. Few of us could have anticipated when we entered this profession that we would be going to war with a virus that threatens millions of lives.
Over the past few weeks, we have heard countless stories of colleagues and friends around the world who are displaying breathtaking bravery in the face of Covid-19. When we worked alongside you over the years, we would often say we were “in the trenches.” At no time has that felt more true than right now. Today, you stand on the front lines of the most daunting pandemic the world has faced in more than a century. In the face of this overwhelming threat, we know you are confronting new challenges, responsibilities, and stresses. We recognize the new risks you are taking on: the fear of getting sick or, even worse, getting your family sick. And these worries are made even more acute by the horrifying fact that many of you labor without the personal protective equipment you need and deserve.
Yet you are showing up anyway. You are racing to triage a flood of critically ill patients. You are searching for medical supplies that are scarce, or even making them yourself. You are caring for anxious outpatients who still very much need you and want to know if they will be okay. You are volunteering to work extra shifts or to be assigned on a dedicated Covid-19 service because you know you are needed. As hospitals close to visitors, you are filling the role of family members and chaplains to hold people’s hands and be with them at the end. Through it all, you are putting on a brave face for your patients amid your own fear, weariness, frustration, and sorrow. Despite the unprecedented challenges of the moment, you are choosing to honor the oaths we took when we entered the profession.
We want you to know the effect your actions are having on the world. Your courage is mobilizing people in all corners to ask what they can do to respond to this pandemic. Billions of people worldwide are staying home to do their part and give our health care system a fighting chance. People are sewing masks, manufacturing gowns, and donating their home stash of gloves to support you. Around dinner tables, in newsrooms, and in the halls of Congress and parliaments, people are in awe of your sacrifices. You are showing all of us who we can be in our very best moments.
In the weeks and months ahead, we will all be tested as a profession and as a human race. And we will need you more than ever. For that reason, as difficult as these times may be, we hope you can take small opportunities to take care of yourself whenever possible. Keep in close contact with the people most dear to you, even if that contact is by phone or through a screen or glass window. Give yourself moments of solitude away from the news, social media, and responsibilities at home. Allow yourself permission to experience and show your emotions, recognizing that your ability to be honest and vulnerable is evidence of strength, not weakness. Support each other, knowing that you are all in this together and that there are, and will be, many moments of struggle. Most of all, have compassion for yourself — for your fallibility and your humanity.
You have shown our nation and our world what it means to care for and sacrifice for others, to truly serve. You remind us that in moments of crisis, we have a choice. We can retreat to our corners and fend for ourselves. Or, with hands outstretched and hearts wide open, we can reach out and lift each other up.
We cannot think of a time when we were more humbled and proud to be associated with our profession. For generations, society has looked to its medical professionals, not only for healing, but also for moral leadership. You are providing both to a world that is afraid and hurting.
Long after all of this is over, the story of the heroic response to this pandemic will be documented in history books, shared in stories handed down from generation to generation, and taught in classrooms across the globe. And that story will largely be about you: the brave men and women who went to battle with an enemy that threatened the world and sacrificed so much for the greater good. If we keep this story close to our hearts, if we remember the courage on display in ERs, ICUs, and clinics, we may very well emerge stronger and with a greater commitment to our shared humanity than when this journey began.
As clinicians, we may come from different backgrounds and specialties, but our values are singular. Our commitment is clear. And in this moment more than ever, our hearts truly do beat as one.
Thank you for choosing to be a healer. We are so proud of you. We are so grateful for you. And we, along with so many others worldwide, are praying for you, for your health, safety, and strength in the long days ahead.
With love and solidarity,
Vivek and Alice