Two months into the COVID pandemic, physicians on the front lines were referred to as ‘Heroes’. Are physicians actually heroes? I have a perspective on this that is different from popular culture.
Most physicians are born with an instinct to heal. We run into danger, without concern for our own safety, to save lives. Our intense and arduous training to become a physician has an alchemical effect on our instinct to heal. It, in fact, amplifies and hones it. We train under conditions of intense pressure, diagnosing and treating patients with contagious diseases, unimaginable traumas, and a myriad of illnesses that range from mild to devastating. We show up every day to take care of whoever walks in our door with whatever ailment and range of suffering, from superficial to life-altering. In fact, this instinct feeds our life force and keeps us returning day after day, to help heal the wounded and sick. This is the instinct of a Healer, NOT a Hero.
For a majority of physicians, this instinct awakens at some point in their lives and propels them to endure more than a decade of rigorous training after college, to equip them with the expertise to offer safety and healing to all whose paths they cross.
As a physician, not only is this my sacred work and vocation, it is also woven into the very fabric of my being. Regardless of what I have endured in life, my instinct to heal has never grown dim. It is who I am and will always be, interwoven with the essence of Medicine itself.
In addition to my training in medicine, I have also received ‘training’ as an abuse survivor. My abuse journey began in childhood and followed me through my medical training and beyond. My marriage of nearly 20 years embodied two decades of emotional abuse and degradation until I finally had enough. After decades of immersion in this form of toxicity, recognizing abusive behavior has also woven itself into the fabric of my very being. It is present alongside my instinct to heal and serves to keep me aware when that instinct is threatened.
When I was 36, nearly 22 years ago, I left Corporate Health care forever, never to look back. My experience within it was no different than my years of abuse. I was told that I was dispensable, that in fact, all physicians were. I was told that my role was to admit patients to the hospital, where most profits were generated. Healing my patients was a conflict of interest for Corporate Health Care, and any personal intention to practice would not be tolerated if I did not comply with the corporation’s financial mission. In short, practicing medicine from integrity would not be tolerated. These words were like acid to my soul. They came out of the mouths of administrators in the last corporate system I worked for, the third health care system I sought employment from after they promised to allow me to practice ‘patient-centered care’ from a place of integrity. What they actually wanted me to be was a prop for advertising them in the name of wellness to increase patient volume. I was unable to practice medicine this way, despite my inflated salary and benefits package. However, when I left Corporate medicine over two decades ago, I was still a ‘boiling frog,’ unable to discern patriarchal behavior in my personal life, as abuse in the form of gaslighting and degradation was the norm in my marriage. When betrayal was added to this mix, bearing this form of treatment became intolerable despite how adapted I had become.
It has now been fourteen years since my divorce and nearly 22 years since I left the patriarchal system of Corporate Health Care. When one individuates from a longstanding pattern, it leaves an imprint, a memory, like an antibody in one’s psyche that develops over time, and has the ability to recognize and stave off behavior that is degrading, abusive and erosive to one’s instinct. I can now sense abuse from a distance. With the benefit of time and decades of separation from Corporate Health Care, I can see clearly, how physicians are treated by that system — used, abused, degraded, and in fact, incarcerated with ‘golden handcuffs’ — the promise of affluence for the price of their souls. Over time, this causes significant damage to their instinct to heal, resulting in the health care system we have today.
The patriarchal pattern will continue to operate as it always has. It has not changed in 5000 years. It has consumed health care with its insatiable appetite for money and profit, using health providers as minions to meet bigger and bigger profit margins, a different bottom-line than what nourishes a healer’s instinct, a different matrix altogether. In fact, the Patriarch often camouflages its abuse, using slogans, symbols, and sentimental words to hide its true agenda. With COVID, we can see this more than ever before, the abuse patterns embedded in the matrix of what is now normalized. The dynamics of abuse are hiding in plain sight. It is hard for one to see them when physicians and health providers are called ‘Heroes’ yet placed in needless danger in unsafe working environments. Calling a Healer a Hero is actually a kind of code, a sentimental projection that is designed to throw off the scent. Words and titles often act as deflectors to get workers to perform according to the mission of the corporate agenda during a time of crisis. Of course, physicians will run towards danger, given their instinct to heal, but placing physicians and health providers in unnecessary danger and putting them and their families at risk, is unconscionable, and not what they signed up for.
Why a Hero? A hero is a mythic archetype, one that people look up to, an image of hope, during a time of crisis, unknown outcomes, and amplified suffering. But when archetypes are used to camouflage, not only do they perpetuate the illusion, they cover up the truth and hide the shadow. If the collective is caught up in Hero worship, they are less likely to see how Healers are being abused behind the curtain. This is a common tactic used by Patriarchy over millennia, no different today than in times gone by.
Furthermore, calling physicians Heroes places inordinate pressure on them to continue on, under duress, in suboptimal and unsafe environments. Archetypal projections are powerful and can elevate as well as harm the people or group they are projected onto. Physicians and health providers have been placed in an untenable situation with COVID, where they must choose between their patients and families. Unhooking a collective projection to keep their families safe, triggers a crisis of conscience. This choice is not a part of the healer’s instinct or the Hippocratic oath. In fact, working without safety is not even a part of their employment contract.
The condition that physicians are suffering from is learned helplessness. When financial incentives are coupled with production line performance, physicians get used to this treatment and consider it the ‘norm’. Their commitment to healing regardless of how they are treated places them at risk for being used and exploited for corporate profit. It was no different from what I experienced in my marriage. My incentive to stay was my commitment to my marriage, regardless of how I was treated. I had been trained to bear abuse for nearly a lifetime. It felt ‘normal’ to me. The physician’s employment contract is their commitment. Once signed, physicians are expected to justify their salaries, and signing bonuses and patients become metrics. They are delivered a series of shocks when they place their integrity as a Healer over profit and are discouraged to voice their truth, let alone, practice from it. Their Healer’s instinct suffers grave damage, and this form of classical conditioning leads to learned helplessness. The lack of meaning in their work is, in fact, the primary cause for physician suicide, depression, anxiety, and drug abuse, epidemic incorporates health care today.
So, I propose we stop calling physicians and health providers Heroes. They are Healers. Let us pull back the mythic curtain of illusion and open our eyes to see how physicians are actually being treated in Corporate Health Care. This has been underway for nearly three decades. In order to transform dysfunction, we must first become conscious of the truth. Without truth, we remain trapped in illusion, entranced by sentimentality, and add to needless personal and collective suffering. Becoming conscious is a personal choice and a powerful and necessary one.
The shadow of health care has been operating in plain sight. COVID has now brought it to the fore. Now more than ever, we must awaken to it, call it out, and transform it into one that is aligned with the essence of Medicine. Let us liberate the instinct to heal in our physicians so they can offer it freely in the practice of medicine. And most of all, let us begin demanding integrity from a system that touts to offer both health and care — and provides neither.
©June 2020Kalpana (Rose) M. Kumar M.D., CEO and Medical Director, The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine, Pewaukee, WI. www.ommanicenter.com Author of 2nd Edition – Becoming Real: ReclaimingYour Health in Midlife 2014, Medial Press. She is currently accepting new patients-call 262.695.5311 for an appointment. During this time of the COVID19 pandemic, she is offering both telephonic or in-person appointments for those people free of symptoms.