Northern New Jersey

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This essay is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.

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I never wanted to do this. Growing up, I had no interest in sick people or the science of making them better. I wanted to be a writer and a teacher. But my mom, an immigrant who wanted a stable future for her daughter, insisted that I choose a more practical career as a pharmacist. I resented her throughout my college years for not letting me go after the things I wanted.

It wasn’t until I was actually working as a pharmacist that I realized I could still have all those things. I used my free time to take writing classes in the city. I became a published author. On Thursday nights, I taught yoga at a local library. As I followed my dreams, my long-standing bitterness toward the career that had been forced upon me faded. I think I even started to develop a certain fondness for it.

Then COVID-19 hit. I was forced to cancel all my classes. I couldn’t travel to the city anymore. Suddenly, my whole life revolved around the hospital where I was a pharmacist. I was bombarded with terrible news throughout the workday. Mortality statistics. Drug shortages. Colleagues calling to say they weren’t coming in because they’d developed a cough. Colleagues passing away and management refusing to say how or why. And when the day was finally over, I took these tidings home with me. Old feelings of resentment toward my profession started to resurface.

I am not a hero, despite what they say in the news. Concepts such as courage and sacrifice have never resonated with me in the context of my work at the hospital. In that context, I’m just trying to get through the day so I can go do the things I enjoy. But now that the things I enjoy are all canceled, I can’t stop thinking, “Why am I going to work and exposing myself to this virus? I never wanted to do this.”

These thoughts take up a lot of space in my mind and they make me feel ashamed. To subdue them, I redirect my energy to my work. It takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail to make sure that the right patient is getting the right drug at the right dose through the right route at the right time. I check and recheck every prescription religiously because I cannot afford to make a mistake. Do no harm, even if you resent your job, even if there’s a public health crisis, even if your own life is on the line. Do no harm. I hold this mantra extra close these days, for it’s one of the last remnants of normalcy in healthcare.

Dedication can indeed exist alongside fear and resentment, but the government has created an image of healthcare workers that fails to acknowledge this. The rhetoric of “healthcare heroes” makes healthcare workers feel embarrassed and chastened for having valid concerns about their safety — concerns that largely stem from the government’s failure to provide them with adequate pay and protection. Furthermore, the assumption that healthcare workers are willing and able to make sacrifices deprecates the unique challenges that individuals in my industry are facing right now. Healthcare workers are not a monolith. We are more than just people who save lives. We are parents, caregivers, teachers, and artists. We are scared, angry, ashamed, and tired. And we never wanted to do this.

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Olivia Qiu is a pharmacist, writer, and yoga teacher in New Jersey. She wishes she could visit her sister.