Heroes Work Here

It’s a sad commentary on the past year that the only deviation from our Covid routine was an occasional drive to a Kaiser Health Care facility for various issues that couldn’t be put off until after the pandemic. Each time, we were struck by the organization and efficiency of the place and, especially, at how kind and caring all the staff were.

It wasn’t until I picked Sandy up the other day after she had some minor surgery that, as usual, went without a hitch, that I noticed a home lettered sign, about the same size as a political lawn sign, planted outside the main entrance. It took me a few seconds to realize that a big heart shape in the middle of it stood for “O” in the word, “heroes.” “Her❤️es Work Here,” it read. Ordinarily I look askance at such things the way I look at any self-congratulatory propaganda, slogans, patriotic celebrations and events marked by a lot of hoopla and bloviating.

But, after we’d had several occasions to experience the excellence and dedication of the medical team, this little sign, sitting a bit off-kilter and generally ignored amid the bustle and comings and goings of masked people didn’t set off my cynicism alarm. It touched me deeply.

While many of us hunkered down, the workers at this facility and thousands like it risked death daily. Trust me. They didn’t do it just for the money.

In all the years I worked in the medical field, the last word I would have used to describe myself was “hero.” I was just a person who enjoyed helping people and hoped I could do it well. Money was way down on the list of motivations. Though I might have gone into any number of careers, many of which would have been much more lucrative, I don’t regret my choice. I’m sure none of those heroes at the medical center do either.

A friend recently referred jokingly about my “wasted youth.” I responded that, in a sense, it was wasted. During the era of “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” my evening “entertainment” was sitting at home studying. Days were spent in classrooms, clinics and hospitals facing down anxiety and self doubt while surrounded by disease and death. Equipped with only a fraction of the knowledge and skills I needed, there was no alternative but to soldier on as best I could.

Skills improved over the decades, but they still never felt adequate. That was a good thing. It forced me to work harder to do right by those who depended on me. One thing I learned well. Even when there wasn’t a lot more to be offered, a caring attitude had a healing effect .

Throughout my career, the studying never ceased. It was necessary to keep up with developments both in my speciality and in general medicine in order to deliver the excellent level of care I demanded of myself. I was “on call” 24/7 most days and nights. To this day I dread the sound of a telephone ringing in the evening. There was no paid sick leave. Unpaid vacations had to be planned months ahead to ensure my rejection sensitive patients were prepared for my absence and that a competent colleague was available for coverage.

Not only is psychiatry regarded by many physicians as a lot of mumbo jumbo, and witchcraft, it’s the lowest paying medical specialty. The cost of doing business and putting money away for retirement, combined with ridiculously low fees compared to most medical specialists, reduced my net income to the point that, if money was the point, I could have done just as well with a much less stressful 9-5 job with benefits. On top of it all, I worked with very disturbed people. Often, they took their anger out on me or were clingy and demanding. Their chronic mental illnesses provided no end of challenges and frustrations. Of course, many were appreciative, but just as many took me as much for granted as they would a clerk in a convenience store.

I’m not whining. It’s just the way it was. Truthfully, none of that mattered. My point is, though the prospect of contracting a deadly disease didn’t enter into my work, I understand well how and why those “heroes,” often for scant thanks, risk all and give their all every day. Like me, they had no choice but to pursue a career in the medical field. Don’t ask why. I really don’t know. If I were a religious person, I’d say God calls us to the task. Well, something surely did, and I never regretted heeding the call.

The trials and tribulations I faced paled in comparison to what front line workers are faced with today. I took pride in myself for being dedicated but considered myself no hero. Though today’s medical workers surely do deserve that label, I doubt they view themselves as heroes either. If you praised them as such, I think most of them would say what a lot of heroes say after the medals are placed around their necks. “I was only doing my job.”

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