Courage Really Is Beautiful
(Combat Level Stress Among Medical Workers Battling the Covid-19 Coronavirus)
By Officer (RET) Tom McMurtry, Sinclair College Police Department, Captain (RET), U.S. Army Special Forces
*This is an article from the Summer 2020 issue of Combat Stress.
While watching television a few nights ago, I happened to see a Dove soap commercial meant to honor front line medical workers called, ‘Courage is Beautiful’. It opened with a woman in blue gown and gloves who I thought I recognized. A few pictures later, I thought I might have met the young black man with a mask around his neck. The 30 seconds ended with me looking into a pair of strangely familiar dark eyes. That is when I realized that it was not the faces that I knew. It was the look on their faces I had seen before. Many of those health care warriors had a long unfocused stare, as if they were looking at something a thousand yards to the front. Their eyes were set into faces that were unwashed, with hair that was unkempt. Many of the faces had deep marks left by wearing the same mask way too long. I had seen similar things in the faces of my Soldiers in Iraq. We were months into the war, with months to go and everyday seeming to be just like the day before. No matter how hard we worked, nothing seemed to get any better. No matter how many lives we lost, it didn’t seem to make any difference. We couldn’t run. We couldn’t quit. All we could do was get up, show up and go to work the next day and the next day and the next day. We couldn’t tell if we were winning the war. Victory for us was doing our job, helping our buddies and staying alive until our tour of duty was over. At the end of long hard days, it was not unusual to see that same mental and physical exhaustion on the faces of my men.
I felt kinship and empathy for these medical professionals and wished I knew them and could talk to them; but what should I say? I could tell them they are not alone or that this too shall pass or thank them for their service. I remember returning from Iraq and being told, “Thank you for your service” by many well-meaning people. I tried to always be courteous and to acknowledge their gratitude. It was uncomfortable for me because of the enormous gap between the good. I hoped to do and the good I thought I did. So, I pondered what I wished I had been told then and what I could now say to medical workers under combat level stress battling the coronavirus. I decided that I would thank them and then offer them three thoughts:
First, find someone to talk to and get help if you need it. I know that may seem like two different thoughts, but I have found them tightly linked. I am sure that you know healthcare workerswho take justifiable pride in their physical and mental toughness. I know the type. After retiring from the Army, I became a police officer and a college professor. Rugged individuals in all professions tend to shake off problems rather than seek care. Years ago, I was training to run a marathon, when I felt something pull in my left calf. I tried to just walk it off, but days later I was still limping. My boss ordered me to have it checked out. I had a torn tendon, which caused me to be off work for a month and to miss the marathon. Had I sought care sooner, my recovery would have been easier and shorter. There are many mental health indicators that should not be ignored, such as nightmares and flashbacks. I have had both and (regrettably) shook them off without seeking care. I know better now. I believe having a confidante is key. If you were to ask your co-workers how they are. I suspect most would tell you that they are fine. It may be true, but it also may not. Not all wounds show. A better (if somewhat awkward) question would be “Do you have someone to talk to?” If they say no, volunteer to be that person. If they tell you that they have someone at home to speak to, volunteer to be that person at work. Listening is also providing care and may lead those who need professional help to seek it. There is enormous pride to be taken from what you do, as long as there is also absolutely no shame in asking for help.
Second, keep your humanity. This sounds easy enough. Both I and perhaps some of you became who we became because we wanted to make bad situations better and help people who were in trouble; even if it was just a little. Yet, a thick skin quickly develops, often followed by a hardened heart toward those who are in trouble. This is a natural and often necessary defense mechanism in order to maintain professional focus when things get hectic. I once left a young man screaming in pain to attend to someone who was not making any sounds at all. We push through these periods of great stress with trained emotional detachment. Those receiving care almost stop being people to those providing care. Having been a patient, I found the reverse can also be true. Those providing care can almost stop being people to those receiving care. I can’t tell you how, but you need to find ways to keep your humanity. I have found small acts of kindness to others in quiet moments to be extremely helpful. This will not only help you; it will also help those you serve to keep their humanity.
Finally, this experience will change you. Early in 2003 and only days before I deployed for the invasion of Iraq, I was given a two-day pass to spend with my family. As part of saying goodbye, I promised my wife that I would return to her and that the war would not break me or change me. My promise was heartfelt, well intentioned and ultimately untrue. Nobody fighting their way through a war or a pandemic will emerge on the other side unchanged. Don’t let this be a surprise or a disappointment to you. Whenever this is over, you will need to find your new normal and discover the new you. You are heroes. Know that you are loved and respected by many, many people who may never get the chance to tell you. Thank you for your service and your beautiful courage.