Stop Calling Doctors Heroes and Saints: The Case Against Altruism

Dike Drummond, MD


November 24, 2020

Republished with permission from Dike Drummond, MD

A recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) exhorts doctors to "[Emphasize] the altruism of working in health care and serving of the greater good" in order to reconnect with purpose and make it through COVID-19.

I disagree and I am not alone.

Altruism and the "hero" and "saint" projection onto healthcare workers in impossible working conditions is dangerous and self-defeating.

Let's examine the case against altruism as a healthy core value in pandemic times.

Here in the third wave of the plague that is COVID-19, people are struggling to understand what motivates doctors, nurses, and the rest of the care team to keep showing up to work day after day.

Everyone can see the massive stress, physician burnout, and psychological trauma splashing on everyone who must wear PPE to do their job.

Inside and outside of healthcare we all see the pictures of the refrigerated morgue trailers and the lists of healthcare workers dying of the very same infection.

How can you explain such sustained effort in dangerous and overwhelming circumstances? How can you express your gratitude for such service?

One coping mechanism is to put doctors on a pedestal, to imbue them with superhuman capabilities. Two myths/stereotypes/categorizations appear to be top-of-the-heap at present:

These doctors and nurses and other caregivers are Heroes. They must be Saints — altruistic, selfless servants of the greater good.

The Heroes and Saints idolization of physicians and other frontline staff is a complex phenomenon. On the surface it seems a simple expression of awe and thanks for their massive contribution of caring and skill in this time of desperate need. Thank you.

But hang on just a second. Doctors are not saints or heroes; they are human beings just doing their job the best they can under the most extreme of circumstances. When you carefully listen to doctors (and other frontline caregivers), you quickly see that the Hero/Saint projection is ultimately damaging to the doctor's physical and mental health.

This idolatry actually makes things worse for the doctors and nurses, and all the aides and techs, because they cannot live up to the images we project upon them.

  • We cannot live up to our own expectations of what we can and should do in a pandemic.

  • We cannot live up to the standards of a hero or a saint — yours or ours — no matter how hard we try.

  • None of us has Superman or Wonder Woman levels of endurance and strength. Everyone's tank of compassion has a limited supply.

  • Every time your behavior does not hit the mark of what a saint or a hero would do, guilt crashes in and steals away even more of our precious energy.

The reality is this: You can't give what you ain't got.

However, you can die trying if you hold yourself to these impossible standards!

You need time and space to recharge, refresh, rest, and refuel, or you will kill or permanently traumatize the physicians and staff.

My advice is this:

  • STOP trying to live up to the hero or saint stereotype. Just let it go.

  • (If you don't work in healthcare, please stop talking about healthcare workers in these terms. They're human, just like you.)

  • If you're a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare worker, give all you have to your patients and coworkers when you are at work.

  • Then circle your wagons: Take care of yourself and those closest to you in every minute when you're not actually caring for patients.

  • Hang on through the peak demands and pray for the best.

Republished with permission from Dike Drummond, MD

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