July 2, 2021
The emotional fallout of the last 16 months takes many forms, including a spate of early retirements and suicides among health care providers. Dr. Mark Rosenberg, an emergency room doctor at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., a predominantly working class, immigrant community that was hit hard by the pandemic, sees the toll all around him.
He recently found himself comforting a fellow doctor who blamed himself for infecting his in-laws. They died four days apart. “He just can’t get past the guilt,” Dr. Rosenberg said.
At a graduation party for the hospital’s residents two weeks ago — the emergency department’s first social gathering in nearly two years — the DJ read the room and decided not to play any music, Dr. Rosenberg said. “People in my department usually love to dance but everyone just wanted to talk, catch up and get a hug.”
Dr. Rosenberg, who is also president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, is processing his own losses. They include his friend, Dr. Lorna Breen, who took her own life in the first months of the pandemic and whose death has inspired federal legislation that seeks to address suicide and burnout among health care professionals.
Most of the suffering goes unseen or unacknowledged. Dr. Rosenberg compared the hidden trauma to what his father, a World War II veteran, experienced after the hostilities ended.
“My dad didn’t like to talk about the war but once in a while he did and what he said was that so many of his fellow soldiers died after they came home,” he said. “We would now describe this as PTSD, and I see the same thing happening among health care workers.”
Dr. Rosenberg said he had mixed feelings about the festivities planned for July 4. He is proud of the camaraderie and self-sacrifice he witnessed among colleagues who bravely faced down a deadly virus, but he is uncomfortable with the expression “health care heroes,” especially given the widespread resistance to vaccinations.
“We’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder again and face whatever comes our way,” he said. “But to be honest, we’re wiped out and we just want society to show us that we really are appreciated — by getting vaccinated.”
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