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Heroes Are Human


Working on the Frontlines of the Covid-19 Pandemic
By Roshni Shah |
MARCH 7, 2022
One year later after mom’s passing, my sisters and I stand in front of an altar where we finally were able to have an in-person, socially distanced gathering at home to celebrate her life.
The last words I ever heard my mother speak were garbled cries for help through the plastic of an oxygen mask. It was difficult to hear her because of the poor cellular connection within the cylinder-blocked walls of the hospital, but I could tell she was frightened, exhausted and struggling– all alone and barely having any strength to speak. Her fear reverberated through the receiver into my limbs, echoing my own hopelessness. On April 13, 2020, less than one month after America shut down into silent pandemonium, I lost my mother to Covid-19. I went to work in the trenches of the ICU a few weeks later. Conflicted between my sense of duty and personal grief, my mind disconnected from my body as the same terror pulsed through my veins each time I relived this very situation again, and again, and again.
In the early days of March 2020, we were afraid to get our immunocompromised mother ill. Sunday brunches were moved to the garage despite the blistering cold of Chicago winters. After spending months in India, I was yearning to hug my mom but this is what we had to settle for.
Coronavirus intrudes on every facet of my life- as a first responder, as a daughter, as a desi woman and as a young adult. While some people baked bread or banged pots every evening, I teetered between compassion fatigue at work and physical fatigue at home, navigating my new role as a caregiver for my widowed father, and grappling with unprecedented demands at work. I was forced to put aside my own needs to support the “greater good,” trapped in perpetual sacrifice.
The last moment I was able to hold my mother’s hand, gloved and guarded, my heart sinking as the oncoming nurse pried me off of her body. The blood curdling fear that rippled through my body as I saw the panic and fear mirrored in everyone’s eyes around me. My heart sank into my feet in this moment, and I was reminded of this devastating heartbreak every time my gloved hand held a patient’s hand in an isolated hospital room.
The thing about trauma is that to heal, one requires some distance or space for reflection. There may not be a clean escape, but a definitive ending offers an opportunity for healing to begin. For me, the anguish continues to implicate my day-to-day life as we find our way through another wave of a seemingly never-ending pandemic. Consistent retraumatization and living in uncertainty is debilitating. The individual and societal toll the trauma of the pandemic has created is yet to be fully discovered, but I know it has profoundly transformed the trajectory of my life and the lives of countless others working in healthcare right now.

We are imploding.

Healthcare workers are leaving the industry in record numbers. We feel unappreciated, unsupported and dehumanized. We are grieving, too tired to keep pretending that we are heroes with all the answers; by the deceit of a career many of us chose with the purpose to serve the vulnerable. We are too broken, both emotionally and physically, by a system demanding of us to give of ourselves, but built to utilize us like machines. The insurmountable pride and disappointment that coexists: the desire to help and the exhaustion that keeps you from being optimal;these are the hard realities of living, loving and working through a pandemic. Working in healthcare during the pandemic was always going to be a humbling experience, but the compounding additions–political unrest, personal loss and insufficient resources– have made those who are caring for the most vulnerable, vulnerable ourselves.
Due to the circumstances of the pandemic, we were never able to have an in-person funeral or service for mom. Instead, we held a vigil for 13 days over zoom with traditional Gujarati prayers and sharing stories, photos and memories of mom across the globe. I am so grateful for South Asian rituals like these that offered me a small spark of light on the darkest & hardest days of my life.
I was raised to be a “good desi daughter” by first-generation immigrants who modeled the tropes of the “model minority” monolith associated with Asian-American immigrants. My upbringing integrated the values of hard work, integrity, sacrifice, dharma (duty) and seva (service); further perpetuating a narrative of gratitude at being able to serve and a cultural propensity to stay quiet and work hard. These core values seeped into all of my decisions, from relationships to career. I accepted sacrifice as a boon to success and as a duty to support the community at large. In the pandemic, however, my motivations have been challenged. The demands of working in an American healthcare system–already grueling–now feel exploitative. The American media painted us as healthcare heroes, but the observation was short-sighted. Heroism also implied selfless saviors with a superhuman capacity to manage high stress and big emotions and as a quick-fix to hide the insurmountable chaos and realities of a broken health system. We were set up for failure and now that our humanity has come to the forefront, we have been forgotten. As a nurse, I had to humbly evaluate my circumstances and what I had capacity to do. The endless grief, the lack of breaks and growing demands began to wear me down.
Working during the pandemic has meant a series of poignant and painful lessons in the necessity of self-care for survival. Like many others, I have continually navigated my way through heartbreak after heartbreak as I rolled another body into the morgue or facetimed another family to hear a garbled goodbye. Working on the front lines has forced me to reckon with my values as a South Asian American. Our social and communal conditioning to “work hard by any means necessary and at any cost” can not be sustained anymore. It is not natural to be immersed in relentless trauma and not experience a toll on your soul. The truth is that we don’t know the implications of this trauma on the mental, emotional, and physical health of the generations to come. All we know is that living through traumatic experiences transforms the way our brain and nervous system operates. Over time, sustaining long term stressors impacts our physical and emotional well-being too.

When the mainstream narrative is too narrow to contain the width of your experience, it’s time to tell the story of shared trauma yourself. My Archival Fellows project will explore such stories of grief, trauma, shame, and resilience behind the masks of South Asian American health care workers. I seek to understand the unbearably heavy burden of serving as “heroes” in a battle that continues to be fraught with chaotic leadership, misinformation, and unwarranted loss.
Working in 2020 felt noble, as healthcare workers were supported and celebrated by the public. Walking into work to see signs, posters and celebrations gave me hope that perhaps this time would finally shift the priorities of our health systems and the vitality these places carried for our communities.
I know first-hand the heavy expectations that fell on medical professionals working with few resources while struggling with devastating losses in our personal and professional lives. My hope is to shed light on these complexities, and to lay bare the implications of living life as a survivor of an ongoing battle. My objective is to humanize the heroes and share the stories of those who not only endured the pandemic but continue to endure it today. This work is for all of us who have yet to process the trauma of the past, and who are living through the violence of yet another wave.
Roshni Bhupendra Shah is a heart-led community connector & compassion-driven nurse dedicated to empowering others to be a catalyst for change. Her project seeks to understand the conflicting experience to serve as “heroes” in the depths of loss, fear and compounding stress and highlight the impact of the trauma stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic on South Asian American healthcare workers. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).