Every Hero Has Kryptonite: Not Allowing Nurses To Be Human

“Hero” is a strong word. It has a weight to it. When someone is labeled a hero, they are placed on a pedestal and seen as being above struggle. I think of comic book heroes like Superman who has superhuman strength, speed, and the ability to fly. I think of soldiers who choose to go to war and fight for our freedoms knowing it may cost them their lives. Acts of valor. Purple Hearts. I don’t think of me when I put on my scrubs.

Additional Pressures of COVID-19

COVID is reeking havoc across the globe and every commercial, news story, and social media post has branded healthcare workers as “heroes.” Pictures of bruised faces from long hours of wearing N95 masks. Drawings of nurses physically holding back a giant menacing looking virus fighting to reach the vented patient and cause their demise. Signs put out by hospitals that say, “Heroes Work Here.”

Walking into the hospital with my mask, scrubs, and stethoscope to take care of patients, I do not feel like a hero. I don’t have super strength, lightning speed, or the ability to fly. I am human with very human limitations both physically and emotionally. Regardless of my limits, I still show up to work just like everyone else. I put my personal needs aside to care for the needs of my patients. Nursing is a hard job. There are few people gifted with the compassion, patience, competence, and resiliency needed to do what we do day in and day out. But it has always been that way. I am not downplaying the seriousness of COVID. People are dying. Healthcare workers have been infected and died. This current health crisis has its own unique challenges, but it is not our first health crisis and it will not be our last.

Language Can Inspire, But It Can Also Alienate

Nurses are being called heroes along with other frontline workers, and rightly so. We serve. We heal. We comfort people in their last moments. But the overwhelming use of “Hero” can be objectifying. As nurses we already shoulder more burdens than our fair share. We are strong in front of our patients, go cry in the break room, and then go back to our patients.

I want to be seen as the strong nurse that I am, but I do not want to be seen as impervious to the pain and grief. For too long I buried my emotions trying to be the strong one. The one friends, family, and co-workers can rely on. I will help shoulder your burden In a heartbeat, but struggle with allowing people to help carry mine. Most nurses struggle with acknowledging their feelings, let alone being able to verbalize them for people to know how to help. The constant praise of “Hero” for so long runs the risk of further traumatizing nurses by not allowing them to have kryptonite. When kryptonite is ignored, the pieces bury deeper under the skin and continue to poison over time to the point of death.

We Appreciate Even the Small Gestures

I am extremely grateful for the donations of meals at work. Free food at work always brings joy to my soul and lifts staff spirits. If you are appreciative of nurses and what we do, please keep surprising us. A free donut has taken me from depression after a patient passing to feeling like someone cares about what I went through and it gave me the emotional support to finish the shift. I work hard and overextend myself to make sure my patients’ needs are met. I fight death on my patients behalf. I rejoice when my patients recover. I cry holding their hand as they pass away. COVID has changed hospital protocols, but it has not changed the way I nurse. Nurses faced daily trauma and were rockstars long before COVID- it’s in our DNA. We are also prone to shutting down and allowing kryptonite to eat away at our souls. I am not ashamed of my kryptonite and I don’t want nurses to feel pressured by the community to be ashamed of their struggles.

Don’t say Hero unless you’re willing to allow us to be human and help support us as we recover from our kryptonite

What has your experience been with the word “hero”? How significantly does free food in the break room impact your workday stress?  I want to hear your thoughts in the comments.