Holding out for a hero: on superheroes and NHS key workers…

‘Superheroes were born in the minds of people desperate to be rescued.’

Jodi Picoult, The Tenth Circle

I started back at work this week – real, frontline medical work on a COVID 19 ward, rather than the academic research fellowship that I was doing before – and it’s kind of scary. I’m scared about how bad it could get and I’m desperately sad to be leaving EA and Baby M at home. After complaining about how hard it was looking after a toddler all day, I (unsurprisingly) loved every second and I miss them both so much.

Beyond that, I feel conflicted – am I being reckless putting myself and my family in real danger by taking up this role or am I simply doing my duty? For all the talk of medics as soldiers, we’re not marching off as a unit to battle this dreadful virus on some foreign field – we’re coming home each day from the frontline to our families, which means we’re turning them into combatants too, whether they like it or not. When the news is full of stories about lack of protective equipment in hospitals and of medical staff falling ill and dying, is it bravery or stupidity to put all of us at risk like this?

To be clear, I was asked to come back to frontline medicine; I didn’t volunteer. But despite my internal conflict, I cannot tell you how grateful I was to be asked. Before the call, I had almost literally been tearing out my hair trying to decide if I should volunteer or not. I was seeing all of the chaos on the news and in my doctor FB and Twitter feeds, and I felt like I was shirking my duty.

Rationally I knew I was doing enough already. Looking after our girl remains the most important job I have and would have been enough on its own. Helping remotely with COVID 19 research, as I was before the call up, is useful and vital work if we’re going to create a vaccine or work out a treatment and it should have been enough. But it didn’t feel like enough. My fucking sense of moral duty still wouldn’t shut up. I’m a respiratory registrar, only a year from being a consultant. This is a disease that affects the lungs. I should be helping more; I should be working on the wards.

And I felt guilty for wanting to stay safe at home with my family. I felt guilty because I know how stretched the health service was before the crisis overloaded the resources. I felt guilty because I know that an extra pair of hands would allow friends and colleagues to take a break, which might save them from breakdown. I felt so guilty that I couldn’t relax and couldn’t accept that what I was doing was important and safe and enough. Now that I’m back, I’m glad I agreed as I have missed the particular challenge and reward that comes with hospital medicine, I am filling rota gaps so am supporting my colleagues as I’d hoped, and I’m lucky that my hospital is able to protect us as recommended by Public Health England (whether that is adequate is another argument) but I still don’t know if I agreed out of guilt or duty. Are they any different?

Either way, my perspective on the situation in which I now find myself is really not helped by all the talk of NHS workers as superheroes…

I’m sorry to use this particular tweet as an example as I know it was created and shared with support in mind but it was the one that crossed my timeline at the wrong moment and triggered this train of thought. I also hope I don’t sound ungrateful for all of the support and kind words that I’ve been sent as they really did make my first day easier and made me feel stronger knowing you were all with me. Similarly, I really appreciate the love that the NHS and other key workers are receiving – feeling valued is such a powerful source of strength and that’s needed at the moment.

But I am struggling with all of the memes linking key workers with superheroes. Being told that I’m a hero is bad enough for my imposter syndrome and British modesty but a superhero? I don’t feel like a superhero. Or at least, any connection I feel to being a superhero isn’t a positive association.

Because NHS staff and other key workers don’t have any superpowers, except perhaps a sense of duty that is stronger than our sense of personal safety and I don’t think that is something to be celebrated. We’re not stronger, we’re not faster or smarter. We’re not invulnerable to hurt and we’re not immune to this disease. We have no superpowers; we just can’t say no.

A photo of a pen,  stethoscope and small bottle of Purell, labelled with a Superman S. Superheroes

I guess that last bit, at least, is absolutely the mark of a superhero. Uncle Ben told Peter Parker that great power comes with great responsibility and Spider-Man is one of many superheroes who have to continue their hero work even if they don’t want to do it anymore. They are the only one with the power to defeat their nemesis or hold back the natural disaster or save the child or whatever is triggering their spidey senses, so they walk away from the love of their life or their home or whatever they have to sacrifice to become the superhero. Batman in Batman Begins can’t be with Rachel until he has finished being Batman; Thor leaves Jane behind in the first movie as he can’t take her with him on his quests; superhero movies are full of emotional climaxes where someone the hero loves tells them that if they walk out that door, they’d better not come back and yet they sadly pick up their cape and go anyway. Their sense of duty and moral responsibility is stronger than their love.

When talking about what makes a superhero movie in his excellent series, Secrets of Cinema, Mark Kermode states that ‘the gift of superpower usually involves some sort of trauma or even tragedy.’ Lois Lane was kidnapped and placed in extreme danger more often than anyone could cope with. Rachel was killed in the Dark Knight to torture Batman. Pepper Pots was injected with a substance that made others literally explode in order to manipulate Tony Stark into developing a cure in Iron Man 3. Uncle Ben is killed. Mentors die, lovers leave, family are destroyed; being loved by a superhero is dangerous.

And this is all I can think about when I see myself and other key workers compared to superheroes.

I’m not a superhero – this is my job. It’s a job that I enjoy, and that I find very intellectually and emotionally satisfying, but it is just a job. The rhetoric that being a doctor or nurse is some sort of higher calling or the main purpose of our lives is hugely dangerous and hugely damaging!

I can only speak about being a doctor as that’s my personal experience but I know that other healthcare professionals feel similar pressures and we are often a hairsbreadth away from burnout. I know quite a few medic friends have considered leaving but the sense of duty drummed into us from medical school blinds us to other careers that we might be just as good at and that might be better for our mental health. When I was closest to burnout a few years ago, I spoke seriously to EA about leaving medicine but I didn’t, mainly because I didn’t have a clue what else I could do. He laughed and told me that I could do basically anything – doctors have an extraordinary range of transferable skills that are valuable in all manner of careers, but we are never told that this is possible. We are brainwashed into feeling like we couldn’t do anything else. That we would be wasting our skills, the investment in our training and the potential to do good work. And anyway, how could making shitloads of money doing something else be as fulfilling as saving lives?!

But telling healthcare workers that we won’t find fulfilment in other jobs is exactly how we are persuaded to stay at work without a pay rise, under staggeringly difficult working conditions and now, in relative danger. I wrote during the 2016 junior doctor strike about how there are similarities between a career in medicine and emotionally abusive relationships, and I stand by that comparison. Telling me I’m heroic for staying doesn’t make it any easier to leave.

So no, I don’t want to be called a superhero. I want to be paid fairly, protected properly, and given sufficient resources to do my job – especially when it comes to staffing levels. And if that’s true for me, I can guarantee it’s doubly so for nurses and colleagues in the social care sector.

Because that’s the thing about superheroes: they’re generally too noble to demand – or even accept – material reward for their endeavours. In the case of Thor and T’Challa from the MCU, and Aquaman and Wonder Woman from DC’s Justice League, that’s literally true, while the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, and The Wasp are all aided in their nobility of spirit by their alter egos’ considerable wealth.

Instead it’s typically the villains in those stories who are out to get stinking rich – or stinking richer, depending on their starting point. Think Lex Luthor or the Green Goblin – or even Hans Gruber, if you think of Die Hard as a superhero movie (and I do). “You’re nothing but a common thief,” Holly Gennaro tells him incredulously, as his plot to make off with the contents of the Nakatomi Plaza’s vault is revealed. “I am an exceptional thief,” he spits back, and it makes total sense – because he’s the Bad Guy.

Now I’m not saying I want to be paid for my labours with $640m in bearer bonds, but the expectation that my colleagues and I will go to the frontline – that we’ll keep going to the frontline once this is all over – regardless of how well we’re paid or how adequately the NHS is funded, is just another reason why I’m uncomfortable with the superhero label.

As a junior doctor nearing the end of my training, I’m in a reasonably privileged financial position, though I’m still followed around by the shadow of thousands of pounds worth of student debt, along with the knowledge that friends in the private sector earn far more than I do, in jobs that require them to sacrifice far less. Others are less fortunate. A fully-qualified nurse will start on a salary of £24K, while workers in the social care sector will often struggle to make more than £20K. That’s scandalous, and while I think few people would disagree that those salaries are far too low, every time those same people break out the ‘S’ word, they’re reinforcing a narrative that frequently glosses over financial compensation and opts instead to pay NHS staff in platitudes.

I said before that superheroes have to step up as they’re the only people who can do the job – doctors and nurses and healthcare workers aren’t unique in the same way as superheroes but we have been convinced that we’re the only people that can do the job because there simply aren’t enough of us to fill the gaps. These difficulties are not just caused by the current pandemic. The sense of duty that keeps us here is also what has kept the NHS together through austerity and through the barbaric funding cuts of the past decade. We have to become heroes to come to work during the COVID crisis because we are not adequately protected and that’s pretty shocking.

This idea that I am a superhero, rather than a rube who can’t say no, also makes me feel like I have to be the strong one in this trying and dangerous time; that I have to step up and that the protection and safety comes from me – or at least that I have to find some sort of extra ability that means I can cope with or ameliorate the risk. I don’t; we don’t. And I fear that calling us superheroes takes the focus away from the systems that are failing us, that are demanding that we act heroically.

Working in healthcare shouldn’t be a heroic career choice. It is simply a job. We should be able to go to work, even in times of crisis such as this, without fear and without risk. We should be able to look after you when you need us without putting ourselves and our families in danger. I really, really don’t want to be a superhero and I don’t want to live in a country where those kind of heroics are necessary. But that’s not where we are right now.

Stay safe, stay home, stay well.

10 thoughts on “Holding out for a hero: on superheroes and NHS key workers…

  1. This is exactly how I feel. I am returning to nursing because of the very reason I became one in the first place. To care for people, to advocate for them. Plus while my clinical skills are rusty, those gained from years in management are transferable. I’m going back on the lowest pay a qualified nurse can earn. It’s how it should be and I’m not doing it for a large salary. But I am also doing it so that my fellow health professionals don’t feel the need to act like some kind of superhero. So that they can go off duty to their families and patients will still feel safe. I too am anxious that I am opening us up to illness, but feel compelled to do what’s right. I start this coming week. Excellent post Livvy.

  2. This is such a brilliant post. The fact NHS workers aren’t paid a good amount for what you do is a travesty to say the very least. And I can’t imagine what that must be like feeling that conflict in such adverse circumstances, with that sense of duty with running towards the danger when everyone else is running away from it, and protecting your family. My cousin is also a doctor but I don’t know if she’s been placed on a COVID19 ward or not, either way just the thought of that generates anxiety and being Asthmatic I have no choice but to stay home.
    For what it’s worth, and I say this without the superhero reference, but from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Whether it is in remote research or right on the front lines. I don’t wish that to make you uncomfortable and if it does, I apologise unreservedly.
    Sending you, EA and baby M lots of love during this time ❤️

    1. I know your fear! A new baby and husband at home. A disease that is so easily communicable and could be taken home. A disease where many will recover without issue but some will die or be permanently damaged. It’s scary. You aren’t a super hero, but you are very brave. Bravery and showing courage, means understanding the risks and fearing the consequences, and yet still going and doing the job!! We can describe these actions as heroic. But it will feel like you are an usurper—that you don’t deserve the moniker. I’m not a doctor but several times in my life I’ve been in situations where I had to act quickly to save a life. Afterwards people have told me that I was brave or heroic. I’ve never felt that way. In these situations I was scared and only doing things I knew to do. There was no one else around. I couldn’t just let the other “guy” do it.
      I’ve come to understand that others need to be able to call people heroes. It builds them up (not the people being called heroes but the people doing the calling).
      Stay well and continue to be brave. I am rooting for you and all others in similar situations. Your work has taken on a persona all on its own. But your work has always been critical to the well being of society.

  3. No, you’re not a superhero, and maybe you did accept the offer because of guilt, but still you are doing this, despite the possible exposure, and the possibility of taking this thing home. In my eyes, you are brave, not a superhero, but definitely brave, and a woman who knows where her duty lies. Thank you for doing what you do, Livvy. Stay safe, you, EA and Baby M.

    Rebel xox

  4. Great post. I saw someone post on Facebook a simple meme:
    Call them heroes: Yes!
    Pay them properly: No!

    We call people ‘heroes’ when we want to think of them as somehow different from the general human population, and to make the rest of us feel better for asking them to do the dangerous and impossible.

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