Wiping tears away frantically in haste to reach the changing rooms, my quivering chin was thankfully well hidden under my triple filtered mask.
Before the pandemic I was the textbook definition of the female surgeon stereotype; strong and stoic. We train hard to grow a thick skin.
That day in March 2020, for the first time in eight years working for the NHS, I cried. But my tears were not just for the sick and dying around me, nor worries for my loved ones; they were tears of terror and uncertainty.
My loving mum had just sent a text saying how proud she was of all I was doing. I knew that was code for how much she missed me and worried for my safety. I didn’t know how to reassure her that all would be fine.
Once so ego-driven with pride in my job, I found myself feeling small, insignificant and lost. Never in a million years had I expected to be involved in a war or a pandemic.
Tears streaming once more, I was touched by the show of support, but heroes win battles and have faith in their abilities. I felt nothing like a hero.
Since 2018 I’ve been an Otolaryngology surgical registrar in the Ear, Nose and Throat department of Scotland’s Ninewells Hospital, dealing with everything from life threatening emergencies to elective cancer operations.
With the surge in coronavirus admissions, we had to act fast and re-prioritise our services. We needed more intensive care beds, more medical staff on duty and I was on standby to transfer to any department requiring my skills.
Time went on and we changed our strategies on a daily basis, trying hard to go with the flow of uncertainty and not against it. Easier said than done but we pulled together.
Living alone, 467 miles away from my family in London – who I previously visited monthly – I knew I had to draw comfort from a different source.
‘Clap for Carers’ became a symbol of connection and national pride even though I didn’t feel like the hero they were applauding. The sound of applause was filled with hope and briefly buoyed my spirits every week.
At work, I witnessed the physical and mental pain of others. At home, I was aware of my own sadness and tried desperately to meditate, heal and grow through it. As an introvert, I delved even deeper into the inner peace I find in solitude.
Chatting on the phone one night, my brother suggested that I could quit and come home. Then we both laughed. Anyone who knows me well knows that my job isn’t just what I do, it is who I am.
The public had paid to train me and put their lives in my hands; I was not about to desert them in their hour of need. Not even to mend my own broken heart.
I know I’m not alone. A study of more than 2,000 key workers carried out by Totaljobs in August 2020, showed that 63% felt uncomfortable or undeserving of the title ‘hero’.
It’s exactly how I feel; I’m not a hero, I am simply human. I cannot think of a single colleague who would revel in this praise either.
We are frontline simply because we have the appropriate training to take the lead. That is all. Beneath this we are just as scared, vulnerable and hopeful as the rest of society.
A year on and many conversations later, there’s been time for deep reflections. I now understand that the word ‘hero’ was not meant in its literal form but for encouragement – a way for the public to shine their light for us, in the darkness they knew we were facing.
Despite my own separation from my loved ones and the dying I saw around me, the hardest of all burdens was witnessing the loss in the eyes of others
‘Clap for Carers’ now reminds me not of our heroism but of our humanity. Strength, in my opinion, does not come from a sense of superiority, it comes from unity and love.
In the darkest times of my young career so far, this disaster has gone a long way to remind us of our interdependence. Covid-19 did not discriminate based on societal hierarchy, wealth or education. It broke down our imaginary fences and our ability to fool ourselves into the subconscious belief of immortality.
I want to truly thank the public for their support of NHS staff. For staying home despite difficult living conditions, depression, anxiety and pain.
Thank you for being our heroes; for keeping yourselves safe, so we could cope with the rising numbers of admissions and deaths which are now thankfully declining significantly.
I’m often asked which part of this unwelcome experience has been the toughest. Despite my own separation from my loved ones and the dying I saw around me, the hardest of all burdens was witnessing the loss in the eyes of others.
Families who never had the chance to say goodbye, the tears they shed on the phone, the funerals they couldn’t attend and the closure they may never have.
Thank you for staying home so I can see an end to my isolation from my loved ones too. In the last year, I have spent a total of nine days with my family. My job made me the biggest risk to their health and so loving them from afar was protecting them.
When you clap tonight please do so in celebration of yourselves as well as NHS workers. Let us celebrate the promise of a better future – there is hope on the horizon.
The vaccine has been the light we were all searching for in the darkness. We are so very close to holding our loved ones once more; to comforting each other in person and to reconnecting to those we value most.
I know I’ll be crying again soon; tears of joy this time. I have faith in the unity we have found across the globe and that we can look forward to a kinder, brighter and more tolerant future for all.
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