The concept of being a healthcare worker is a strange one. When a crisis hits, most people run away, but a healthcare worker runs towards it.
In unprecedented times like this, what it means to be a frontline person is evolving daily. A couple of weeks ago, just as COVID-19 was entering the U.S., I had decisions to make about my personal travel plans to Washington state. The anxiety I was feeling leading up to the trip was likened to what we Floridians feel the week leading up to a hurricane.
I had not felt this level of anticipatory anxiety since Hurricane Irma. This type of anxiety is so specific to natural disasters like hurricanes because we know just enough to be fearful but not enough to know how everything will turn out. Will I find a safe place to evacuate to? What should I take with me? Will I have a home to return to? With a hurricane, this anticipatory anxiety lasts about a week and is exacerbated by people rushing to grocery stores, long lines at gas stations, businesses boarding up, and streets becoming eerily deserted.
But then the hurricane nears, you ride out the storm and it’s eventually over in a matter of days. Your anticipatory anxiety becomes immediate and present and then you ultimately feel the knot in your stomach loosen. During a hurricane, as a healthcare worker, I have additional anxieties at work due to specific responsibilities that require me to make personal sacrifices including my comfort, my family, and my home in order to continue to provide care and to serve others.
It makes sense that in light of everything occurring in our world with a pandemic that I would continue to make sacrifices in order to continue to provide care, especially when working in a hospital setting. But what do you do if the care you provide is not essential enough to warrant continuing to serve others in order to preserve their safety and yours?
Many of us are being asked to change what we do. I’ve found that in addition to feeling a constant sense of anticipatory anxiety I’ve also felt incredibly “in the grey.” Every decision I was making was in a grey area and what I decided today might be found to be incredibly wrong the next day – and I needed to be okay with that. I also felt a discomfort that I could not identify for a full week. When I finalized realized what I had been feeling I understood it to be a sense of uselessness.
I am a healthcare worker used to feeling the desire to run towards the crisis – not to stand down. Sure, I don’t administer medications and generally don’t provide CPR (although I could), but my purpose is meant to serve others. Suddenly I was questioning every aspect of my job, weighing the pros and cons of the safety of my patients while considering my role within the global perspective. These daily decisions I suddenly was being forced to make, along with the rest of the world, began to lean my work towards becoming less and less essential. Many days I found myself sitting at my desk utterly dumbfounded and grieving how to accept my non-essentialness when every day I advocate for how essential my role is.
Music therapy is not exclusive in this. All of us are being forced to reevaluate who we are and the length of time we are being asked to do this is entirely unknown. So how do we remain essential when deemed non-essential? This question is not how we convince our jobs that we are essential (that decision is made for us) but instead how we remain in a mindset that we are essential and our work/roles are worthwhile.
Keeping an “essential” mindset requires us first to have acceptance. I have to accept that my job as a pediatric music therapist is not the most essential role at my hospital. But I also need to accept and hold on to the fact that my role is worthwhile. Despite whatever changes will continue to come down the pipeline, I can still find valuable parts of who I am as a person and skills I have to help someone somewhere.
We also have to accept that we are more than our job. I love my job and the work I do, but I am first and foremost Erin, a human being. That means we also have to be accepting of grief. As humans being asked to be flexible, make drastic changes, and cease everything that is important to us means that we will grieve and that is okay. Once I realized that what I had been feeling was useless, the first thing I did was say to someone else, “I am feeling really sad about feeling useless. I don’t do well with feeling like this.”
With grief also comes fear, which is the core component of anxiety. In order to overcome our collective anxiety we need to identify positive coping skills. We are seeing people reach into positive coping skills across the world including reaching out to one another, brainstorming creative ways to remain connected, and turning to and sharing our music.
Together we can remain essential, despite our non-essentialness. Ultimately, we need to remind one another that we are not alone in feeling this way. Continue to create, share, support, and connect.
Be well and stay healthy.