Content warning: mental health issues, death, illness, suicide.
Author’s Note: With the surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an unprecedented glorification of healthcare workers. We started noticing how hard and dangerous it is to work in this field, how important it is to support the healthcare system and advocate for more funding. Many documentaries appeared on the media showing nurses and doctors struggling in crowded hospitals, wearing equipment that made it hard to breathe for them, forced to extremely long shifts and long periods far from home. This made me feel the urge to get to know more about their life in normal times. This article is an attempt to see the humans underneath the gowns, and to share their stories. For legal reasons, the people I interviewed asked to stay anonymous.
“Imagine you have just graduated. There is a pandemic. There is no time for medical training. You are scared and your heart breaks at the view of people dying alone. You get panic attacks when you have to face the unfiltered fragility of life, the loneliness that accompanies death, the crying for help that comes from the patients’ eyes, the feeling of impotence. You hope you will have the chance to say goodbye to your family when your hour will come” (E., nurse in a Scottish hospital).
“Imagine you are an experienced surgeon, and you are brought to tears by sexist, derogatory comments in the operating room by the person you are training. Imagine being called “miss”, instead of “doctor”. Imagine your patients believing your male co-workers who just repeat what you have already said. You have to work ten times harder than your colleagues to be valued and be seen for what you really are, a professional, just like them” (G., doctor in a Scottish hospital).
“Imagine a high security jail. Imagine you are a nurse, laying on a cot in a cold cell. The phone in your pocket could ring at any point of the night. You are tired, but you cannot relax. They could call you for a headache, for some sleeping pills, or just for the need to cry out their remorse. Some changed, some will never understand. Some were just born in the wrong neighbourhood, in the wrong family, in the wrong year. Some chose that life and will always choose it, no matter how many years they have spent in those four walls. You have worked there for twenty years, and you have seen too much. While you are half-asleep, screams start to fill the air. The phone rings. In a few seconds, you are ready to go. A prison officer is waiting to escort you outside. The one who called you was scared; he said you have to run, fast, it is an emergency. The doctor is busy stitching another inmate. You have to go alone. It is not the first time someone tries to commit suicide during your shift. You cannot be scared, you cannot shed a tear for the lives that come and go in front of you. You have to save them, whatever they did to end up there. You have to take the needle and thread, and put them back together. You have to find the words to calm them down. You have to be stronger than them, tougher than them, rougher than them. You have to anticipate them, and, to do so, you have to understand how they think, move, behave. You have to be the strong one, the lion that attacks the gazelle. Beyond the crimes, the horrific violence, the daily struggles, there is a shocking, at times candid and raw humanity, and you find it in the gratitude they express when you help, when you become the shoulder they can cry on. Then, there is no more a “you” versus an abstract “them”. The inmates have names, stories, loved ones, families they have not seen in years, regrets, trauma, dreams, a favourite book, friendships, values. The nurses have names, stories, problems at home, insecurities, fears, hopes, a home to go back to. Sometimes, they listen to your advice, and you see them taking a new path to change. Some study to finally get a diploma, some learn to cook, some do theatre. Sometimes, they do gestures of kindness you would not expect in a place like that, and when they say you are like the mother or the sister they have never had, it is difficult to hold back tears. It is a matter of giving and taking. The entire struggle seems to be worth it when you hear, from the most sensible ones, “thank you for not abandoning us”, “you look tired today, do not worry about it”, or a simple “how are you?”, “we are grateful to have you here”, “we appreciate your sense of honesty and your ethics”. You are not just the prescription and the administration of medicines, the mere execution of mechanical tasks. This profession goes beyond the human, the psychological, the scientific, the educational side. Whether you are sick, tired, depressed, whether it is a six or an eighteen hours shift, you have to open your arms, and welcome all the humanity you encounter on you journey. It is not always easy or feasible to have a good work-life balance. You see the lowest point humans can reach, you are witness of an incredible amount of violence, sometimes you are the victim yourself. You listen to people’s heart-breaking, sad, disgusting, enraging stories. Your shifts are so long you cannot sleep for days. It is hard to leave the things you live beyond the bars of prison cell. You have to fight with yourself so hard just to find a moment of peace, not to succumb to the pain, to the tiredness, to the flashbacks. You are a professional, you have been doing this job for twenty years. you cannot let yourself go” (F., nurse in an Italian jail).
[Mariachiara Vernillo – she/her – @machicomioph]