Will Healthcare Workers Always Be There?
And you think your clients are frustrating.
As Americans, the general rule seems to be that we all have the right to live free… as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else. It could be lighting fireworks off in our backyard. It could be taking a line down a ski slope that is clearly above our experience level. It could be racing motorcycles around a track at 200mph. All of it is considered in the realm of acceptability and legality as long as the only one that could be harmed is the individual taking the risk.
Until recently, I didn’t have much exposure to the central structure that seems to underpin our willingness for many of us to take these risks: hospitals. That is because, until recently, my friend group hadn’t included health workers, and I had only been to a hospital once in my life.
When both of those things changed, I realized that for me, and for many Americans, the healthcare system is an unspoken, deeply held assumption. We know that if we get hurt doing whatever it is we want to do, we know exactly what will happen: an ambulance will come, a hospital will appear, a doctor will assess, and corrective measures will occur.
In six days, weeks, or months we will probably be back to normal. That certainty underpins much of our daily decisions. Without this assumption, would parents let their kids play football, basketball, lacrosse, hockey, or soccer? Would we feel as good about getting into our cars knowing how many horrendous drivers there are on the road?
That certainty, then, seems to equate hospitals to a public utility. For those with jobs or with means, hospitals feel as much a right as electricity and water. The distinction between for-profit vs. non-profit or if the government is involved at all becomes moot. Hospitals exist, and they exist for us no matter what.
Yet now that I’ve come to interact with doctors and nurses more often, one thing is clear: hospitals might feel guaranteed, but the people inside those hospitals are living, breathing humans who are there completely voluntarily. The doctors, nurses, and staff are the humans that see our suffering, our healing, and even our idiocy up close. Surrounding the surgeries, old age care, and freak accidents that happen daily in a nation of over 300 million is the “live free” care they also need to attend to.
Every time an extreme sports athlete “pushes the envelope” a bit too much, the hospital will be there waiting. Every time a 16 year old gets behind the wheel of a 3,000 pound car capable of going 150mph and decides to push it, the hospital will be there waiting (lord knows how many risks I took behind the wheel).
Those are just the immediate consequences from risky actions. We can live free and smoke cigarettes for 50 years; the hospitals will be there for our lung cancer treatment. We can live free, eat nachos, and never go on a walk; the hospitals will be there waiting to help our heart, back, and knee problems. We can live free, avoid the Covid vaccine, and acknowledge the higher risk of being hospitalized. Don’t worry, the hospitals have been and will still be there waiting to treat us.
But if I was a doctor, wouldn’t I start to get mad? Theoretically I would have signed up for years of school so I could help people in need. I walk from room to room alternating between the 85 year old who broke her hip, the teenager who got hit by a drunk driver, and… the 28 year old party guy who accidentally did a bit too much cocaine?
Certainly I understood that being a doctor in America would mean dealing with all types of situations and the roulette wheel that would entail, but I’m also human. I’m not chained to any particular person’s operating table. Couldn’t I decide that in times when “live-free” injuries started to overwhelm normal patients’, I would prioritize those of normal patients?
I could also choose to opt-out. I’m sure there’s a MedTech startup trying to disrupt medicine that would love someone with my experience. The labor market is tight; why shouldn’t I participate in the “Great Resignation”? What is my breaking point? Why am I the assumed linchpin in all this? My ability to “live free” and make choices for myself is just as intact. Perhaps the same could be said for teachers and other professions who face historical amounts of pressure. Their original intentions could have been pure, but if the populations they meant to help cross a theoretical line, what obligation do they have to us?
That’s me though. What is both baffling and perhaps encouraging is the healthcare workers I’ve posed this idea to have reacted with what can only be described as a soft anger, a friendly “how dare you?” Moving beyond the fact that they may not even know the circumstances behind why someone came in, they follow an oath and they believe in that oath - to heal each person to the best of their abilities.
My cynical, New York City heart has trouble believing the existence of these truly good people who believe in the mission no matter how society warps the conditions under which they serve. Think about what happens to us at the DMV when an employee decides they don’t want to be helpful; on a theoretical level, if a besieged nurse started to act the same way, I wouldn’t begrudge them at all. These are people being held to a standard that very few of the rest of us meet in our daily work lives.
Without the context of those actually in the profession, I would have blindly argued that hospitals are not unbreakable edifices but instead a group of humans who are choosing, each day, to come to work; choosing, each time, on the best course of action for their patients; and, hopefully, choosing to overcome their emotions when choosing to do what’s best for us. But if indeed a majority of healthcare workers dedicate themselves to lives of serving all of society - no matter what decisions some parts of that society may make - then we should consider ourselves lucky. Because if normal people like you and I were in their positions, “living free” could lead to some very different consequences.