Your silence is not your shame.
It is your survival.
Doctors and nurses are speaking out against unsafe, unethical, and untenable working conditions — and almost immediately being silenced by their employers. And when they refuse to stay silent, they are fired.
Dr. Ming Lin in Bellingham, Wash. Dr. Ania Ringwelski in New York City. Nurse Lauri Mazurkiewicz in Chicago. These three cases, highlighted in an Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times just a few days ago, are just a fraction of the stories we read, racing past us on our Facebook feed, in the chat rooms of our professional organization’s websites, and spoken of quietly at the nurses’ station or in the break room at work.
There are endless reports of staff bringing their own PPE to work, their own N95 masks, their own respirators, even simple surgical masks – and then being told by administration that they cannot wear them in the building. They cannot wear them in the hallway. They must continue to perform the duties of their job and license without this additional protection from a disease that is ever-increasingly recognized as one that traverses our world through airborne particles, not just virus-filled droplets.
And if they do not, they no longer have a job.
Even the United States Navy has now donned the cloak of prioritizing good PR over the safety of its sailors, firing Captain Brett Crozier from his command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after he criticized the Navy’s management of an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard his aircraft carrier. The words that ultimately relieved him of his duty? “Sailors do not need to die.”
This stifling blanket of corporate intimidation is infuriating and demoralizing, leaving healthcare workers and ethical leadership around the country feeling terrified and enraged.
And yet, the majority of us stay silent.
How many of us in healthcare have found yet another Facebook post, a whistleblower account of hospital administration that prioritizes its ‘good name’ over the safety of its employees? How many of us have shared that post on our own social media platforms – and then, moments later, deleted it entirely?
How many of us can truly take the risk that someone from management might see that post?
How many of us can truly take the risk that, by speaking out, we could lose our jobs?
I spent several years as an Emergency Department travel nurse, taking contracts at hospitals around the country. My friends and colleagues from these adventures, past and present, are sending daily messages, daily texts, daily e-mails.
I can’t afford to lose this job. I am the only income we have right now. If I lose my job, we can’t afford groceries, never mind our rent.
Our son’s medical bills are covered under my insurance. If I lose my job, I lose my insurance, and we can’t afford his medication. And without his medication, he will die.
I have a panic attack before every single shift. I’ve worn my N95 now for six straight days. The hospital says we have to wear it for a week before getting a new one. I want to quit before this job literally kills me. But my income pays the mortgage.
To all of my friends in healthcare, the essential workers around the country, snared in these impossible traps:
Your silence is not your shame.
Your silence is your survival.
The shame belongs not to those too terrified to speak out, but to a country that believes that healthcare is not a universal human right, but a privilege to be earned.
How many of the 6.6 million Americans who just filed for unemployment benefits still believe that their ability to see a doctor should still be tied to their job?
The shame belongs not to those too impoverished to speak out, but to a country that believes that these self-same “essential workers” should earn no more than federal minimum wage.
How many of you depending on grocery store clerks and delivery drivers in this country have told any of those employees ‘thank you’ or ‘please stay safe’? How many of you have screamed at them instead?
The shame belongs not to those nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and custodial workers who do their jobs without the most basic personal protective equipment.
That shame belongs squarely on the shoulders of the hospitals and the healthcare systems who give them no other choice but to do so.
I place no blame at all on you, the American worker who stays silent in the face of a terrible, insurmountable injustice.
I do not think less of you for staying quiet.
It is my sincere hope that you carry neither guilt nor shame for being forced to choose between wanting to live by your own moral code, and needing to bury your probity for the sake of your survival.
It is a burden you should not have to carry.
But I know that you do.
And I am more sorry for that than I can – and will – and shall continue to – say.