I’m a Nurse. But No, I Don’t Want to Be a Hero

If you’re a nurse in British Columbia, as I am, your employee identification probably sports a small golden triangle imposed over a black background. It’s the same symbol often seen on road signs marking disaster response routes. When presented, such identification can allow emergency personnel to traverse controlled routes during an official state of emergency, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Before 2020, I never thought much about this symbol, or what it represented. I felt cocooned in Canada, a safe country with a relatively advanced public health-care system. But now I feel like the small-town neighbour being interviewed by a reporter in the wake of a terrible crime: This is a safe place. Nothing like this is supposed to happen.

There have been more than 300 COVID-19 deaths in Canada. That is fewer, per capita, than in the United States. But our prime minister has warned us to prepare for “worst outcomes.” Nurses in one Canadian province already have refused to test patients for the virus because their employer had rationed personal protective equipment (PPE). A Canadian physician published an op-ed telling hospital administrators to prepare for front line workers to die in the line of duty. Nurses and physicians have expressed distrust of public health officials, and discussed abandoning their post if the Canadian government cannot prevent an impending PPE shortage. The news from other countries is hardly reassuring: Health-care workers in the UK have donned trash bags in the absence of clean gowns. And in the United States, things got so grim at one point that they’ve rented refrigerated trucks to use as makeshift morgues.

In some cases, the efforts of nurses and doctors have been called heroic, especially in hot spots such as Italy and New York City. In March, my own neighbourhood adopted an evening ritual of cheering for front-line health workers fighting the pandemic. Police and ambulance vehicles form a flashing procession past my city’s hospital.

I’m definitely not one of the heroes. The pandemic struck when I was on maternity leave. I’m due back imminently, but as a hospital nurse educator, not as a frontline caregiver. Plus, lacking daycare (which was shuttered), I’ve elected to delay my return to work by several weeks.

If I’m being honest, the daycare issue served a convenient cover for my own fears. I’ve dealt with bouts of hypochondriasis in the past, and now feel the familiar worries—intrusive thoughts of doom roiling to the surface. I keep asking myself: Is this a pathological fear or an appropriate response to a real health risk? But it’s uncharted territory. I’ve never lived through a pandemic.

I don’t want to bring an infection home to my children, aged one and three, or become so sick that I can’t care for them. If I’m quarantined, I won’t be able to see them for two weeks. I worry about my husband, too. And there are more worries, ones that I don’t even want to form with words. I don’t feel brave in any sense, let alone heroic.

But at least I know I’m not alone. On a recent Quillette podcast episode, an ICU director noted that while it is sometimes easy to recruit doctors to treat victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters, similar efforts to recruit doctors for COVID-19 duty have been much less successful. Once an earthquake is over, it’s over. But when there’s a pandemic, everyone’s at risk.

I’ve seen at least one doctor tweet that she’d prefer to stay home. And I sometimes visit online forums where nurses and doctors share similar thoughts. Responses are not universally supportive. There’s a narrative that says that doctors and nurses must “answer the call.” That’s why I’m uneasy about the nightly cheering sessions. Some of us don’t feel like trying to become heroes. Yes, I have a few colleagues who would volunteer to travel to Africa to treat an Ebola outbreak. But they’re in the minority.

Some are predicting that COVID-19 will come in waves, like other pandemics, and that a second more deadly surge may come in the fall. What happens if there’s a critical shortage of masks, or beds, or workers themselves? Will there be an expectation that the “heroes” we are celebrating (and their families) must take on an ever-increasing level of risk? If we can’t adequately ramp up capacity, and work conditions become intolerably dangerous, will the public turn on health workers who abandon their posts?

The health-care-workers-as-heroes narrative is alluring. As with the 9/11 first responders, it helps the public cope with their fears and anxieties. But it has its dark side.

As for me, it looks like I will be back at work before the pandemic is over. Even though I don’t work in a high-risk role, I expect a workplace that’s very different from the one I left a year ago. And I will do my best to put on my own brave face until we all can settle in to a new normal.

What that normal will look like, I’m not sure. But one thing feels certain: Those small golden triangles on our ID badges will never again strike me as any mere abstract logo. Instead, they symbolize a deadly occupational hazard that health-care workers will face for many more months to come.

Amy Eileen Hamm lives in New Westminster, BC. Follow her on Twitter at @preta_6.

Featured image: Hospital nursing station photographed by David Quitoriano.


  1. You’re in good company there. Even the ancient father of medicine Galen left town during ancient plagues. It was common for Roman physicians to do so as well.

    One of the things that let Christians become more popular in the Roman Empire is that they didn’t do that, they provided basic nursing care and as a result, had a higher survival rate.

  2. It is an illuminating thought that the current general applause for people in the medical field and other frontline professions can be perceived by them not only as an expression of social gratitude, but also as pressure to live up to these expectations.

    In some ways this is not unlike the situation of drafted soldiers in wartime: However much justified fear and concern for your life you may have, there will be few who are willing to listen to you and understand these feelings. And even smaller is the number of those who would accept that you are acting on these fears and evading the duties that your society expects of you.

    These are decisions that everyone can only make for themselves. But in any case it is good that, unlike in authoritarian societies, there is an opportunity to communicate your concerns publicly.

    So, thank you for sharing!

  3. The kid bagging groceries doesn’t get a little triangle.

    The guys working the power plants, the packing plants, the assembly lines–all the armies of people whose continued presence at jobs that don’t supply PPE because it wasn’t even a question before this probably don’t wanna be heroes either.

    And yet, if they weren’t there, putting themselves in harms way during this trying time, you couldn’t do either. You couldn’t stay home, and you couldn’t work.

    No one is asking you to be a hero.

    They’re expecting you to do the job that people rely on you for. Just like everyone else.

  4. We have tended, in the US, to develop a cult of heroism that resembles, in some ways, our all-inclusive cult of victimhood. That is, everyone a victim, everyone a survivor, and everyone a hero just for showing up to work.

    I tend to believe that when a fireman runs into a burning building to rescue a child, that’s not enough to say that he is a hero. He’s trained for it, he understands all of the risks, and he’s being paid to do it.

    But when a passerby, an accountant, perhaps, walks by a burning building, hears a child scream for help, and then runs inside to rescue it; that is more like a hero.

  5. I do not think this is a cult. Rather, it is an inherent desire for exaggeration by Americans.

    Every time I finish the next stage of work, my American boss writes in the chat “Great.”
    A couple of times I asked him not to write these words, because it’s just a job. Does not help…

    Don’t worry too much. You are huge :slightly_smiling_face:

    PS. I mean, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

  6. ‘Great’?

    You’re suggesting "an inherent desire for exaggeration " because you did your job and your boss said ‘great’?

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that American English is NOT your first language?

    Here are some typical American conversational exchanges–

    He, “Hey, dinner’s on, it should be ready in about half an hour.”

    She, “Great.”

    Employee, “Just got my first (insert standard daily task) done, looks like I might get an early start on (second daily standard task).”

    Boss, 'Great."

    “Great, I just broke my last (insert name of important object)”

    The word ‘great’ isn’t always an example of over-the-top praise.

    OR–to him, you’re doing a really great job.

  7. And “sorry” but I would not want “Rebecca Lawrence T” to be my doctor. Too bad she allowed to go to medical school and use up a slot that could have been used by someone willing to treat patients …

    Being in a hospital is dangerous. It’s a hell of a lot more dangerous if you are a patient instead of staff. The fact that more people will be “saved” (temporarily) from death due to hospitals canceling all elective and/or non-essential surgeries than will be (temporarily) saved from the Wu Flu speaks volumes.

  8. Not fair at all, everyone has a choice, and nobody is responsible for the other guy, get a grip will ya…

    Those kids bagging groceries if they are healthy have less chance of dying because their youth – and COVID is not taking young today it is taking the comorbid and weak and old. As well as many front line hospital workers.

    The nurse is on the front line in the trenches, surrounded by an already contagious environment of the regular old run of the mill diseases besides this novel little-fucking virus.
    Hospital atmosphere drenched in COVID droplets and the dying…
    For you to say what you have is careless self-centred. It’s is significant of a twat…

    Her fears are justified and because she signed on as a nurse, it does not mean she has to endanger those she loves very dearly. Especially her newborn. Where does it say she must sacrifice her life…

    How about you put your money where your mouth is slick and be quiet and stoic about it and not tell anybody it Hero. Run out there and show us how its done?

  9. “Just of the top of my head without any research on the subject”

    Nuff said. And, I’ve been called much worse than Einstein.

    And, no, I don’t want her as my doctor. And I don’t want my “policeman” top be more concerned about getting home safely than about the people he is supposed to protect getting home safely. And I don’t want a fireman who is afraid to enter a burning building when it is his job to do so.

    None of these people needs to be a “hero”, and none of them need to be in jobs that require having a pair. I don’t give two shits if they are nice, caring, honest people with legitimate fears. In fact, I assume they are, and I give them this benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. l’d greatly prefer an arrogant asshole doctor who thinks she’s God but is not afraid to do her job, than someone who is afraid of a disease that far and away is most dangerous to elderly and infirm. But, that’s just me.

  10. I appreciate the author’s honesty, and I’m sure many (if not most) of frontline health care workers share her concerns and level of anxiety. Unfortunately, much of the media hysteria has raised the anxiety level beyond what is appropriate. Yes, many people are going to die from this virus, and yes, there will be cases of otherwise young and healthy patients succumbing to COVID; however, these cases are far more rare than the media portrays. Once we have reasonable data on this virus, my prediction is that the case fatality rate will be somewhere between 0.1% and 0.5%. Recent analyses suggest that our COVID-positive numbers may be off by as much as a factor of 10. In our center, nearly all fatalities have occurred in patients with significant comorbidities.

    I admit to a degree of trepidation when I started on my first week in the hospital post-COVID awareness; however, I didn’t view going to work as a heroic act. It is simply my job, it is what I was trained to do, and if those who have the skills to care for sick patients fail to respond, what is the end result? I’m a physician in my 50s, and I have to admit I was somewhat awestruck at the positive response of the generation behind me: young nurses with young families volunteering to cover shifts in the ER and/or cross train in the ICU, my younger partners insisting that all of the 60+ physicians stay home while they shouldered the workload. Truly inspiring. For all the negative stereotypes attached to the “millennial” generation, I have yet to witness any workplace behavior that fits those stereotypes. If the staff at my hospital is any indication, I’m confident that our healthcare system is in good hands for the future.

    Finally, in response to some of the comments on the thread: There is a much greater risk for frontline health care workers compared to other essential employees during this time. All should be appreciated, but the risks are not the same. The healthcare worker is far more likely to be exposed to a greater viral load, more virulent strains, and greater aerosolization.

  11. If I appeared that I was being too serious please forgive me.

    What you said interested me because your boss’s intent was immediately obvious to me, but I could see that it was something that could appear as exactly what you thought it was to someone who has learned English well, but who does not share the deeper nuances of the society

    Thus everyone understands everyone, and even gets their tone, but there’s an undercurrent at one point that exists because of a misunderstanding hat lies beneath anything that was said.

    And that one misunderstanding–in this case something that looks, sounds and is over-effusive praise is taken at face value. Not just by you, but by a lot of people.

    Over-effusive praise is something that many people from many nations think Americans engage in far too much of.

    But what if most --or all-- of that sentiment comes from things like this?

    Something that the listener hears that isn’t there at all to the speaker–and all are completely understanding each other.

    Simply amazing, the human mind.

  12. Our morning breakfast television shows are running a sickening campaign presently, encouraging everyone to “thank our frontline health heroes” - as though we Nurses (of which I am one) and Doctors should be patted on the head and used as some gimmick for the brekky television set to use to make them look good.

    I didn’t get into Intensive Care for that and I detest being used as a plaything by people who couldn’t give a toss about us at any other time.

    I do the job. I earn an income. That’s it.

  13. I think you missed my point. I didn’t claim any hero status for health care workers. You are correct, they are doing their jobs. I also did not dismiss the risk that other essential employees face in carrying out their duty.

    Yes, healthcare workers have access to, and are trained in the use of, PPE whereas others are not; however, PPE is in short supply everywhere. I get one N95 mask per week. In the past, if I had used an N95 mask for more than one patient, that would have been a violation…to use one mask for 20+ patients a day for 9 days straight…unheard of. Additionally, many patients do not present as classic COVID-19, and the diagnosis is not made until after there has been considerable staff exposure. We do not have nearly enough PPE to “treat every patient as a COVID patient”.

    If you have never been involved in a code situation, you can’t imagine the degree of aerosolization and contamination that occurs in the process of CPR, bag ventilation, intubation. The grocery bagger and sewer employee are simply not getting that degree of exposure…it is hardly worth arguing.

  14. This is why I refused to join the rush for PPE. I have worked in a hospital research lab, and I knew they would need it far more than I.

  15. I think you hit the nail on the head that its an American thing. However it really isn’t praise. Its just acknowledgement using the same words which can be used for praise.

    Kind of like when we meet up with someone and ask “How are you doing?”. Its not really a question, and attempting to answer it like a question is awkward. Its just a greeting phrased a question.

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