Medical Examiner

A Nurse Explains Who Can Call Her a Hero and What She Thinks of All the Applause

A protester holds a sign that reads "20 seconds won't scrub 'hero' blood off your hands"
A protest in front of the White House on Tuesday.
Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

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Health care workers across the country do not have enough masks and other equipment to protect themselves against the novel coronavirus. And yet they are still going to work trying to help save us, making them incredible heroes. These two ideas are practically boilerplate at this point in the pandemic.

But being called a “hero” instead of receiving adequate gear and support has been frustrating for many front-line hospital workers. And it’s starting to get pushback, including from Jillian, a nurse in Brooklyn who brought a sign to a protest in Harlem earlier this month that read: “Please don’t call me a hero. I am being martyred against my will. Defense Production Act now!” The Defense Production Act is a law that creates supplies for combat and could be used to secure more personal protective equipment, or PPE, for workers fighting the coronavirus. It’s a tool Trump has been resistant to using—the administration finally invoked it at the beginning of April to acquire N95 masks from 3M. It’s too little and too late to fix the current shortage.

A cardboard sign that says "PLEASE DON'T CALL ME A HERO. I AM BEING MARTYRED AGAINST MY WILL. DEFENSE PRODUCTION ACT NOW!"
Jillian

I talked to Jillian about why she doesn’t want to be called a hero, who she thinks are the worst offenders in shelling out empty praise, and what she thinks of all the clapping. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and we are withholding her last name for privacy.

How has the PPE situation been at your hospital in Brooklyn?

We get one N95 per day. We can replace it if it becomes soiled. From what I’m hearing from other nurses across the country, that’s the best-case scenario for most hospitals right now. There’s a lot of hospitals where medical staff are using the same N95 for five shifts. Before these times, these interactions with patients in isolation, tuberculosis patients, for example—we would change our masks with every patient interaction. We’re not following the guidelines that we were following before COVID. But my hospital has PPE.

What made you go to that protest in Harlem?

Solidarity with other nurses, to show support for nurses there who were not receiving adequate PPE. If it’s happening to one nurse, it’s happening to all of us.

I want to hear more about the sentiment on your sign. What made you write that?

I woke up at 7 in the morning and I made that sign. I was seeing a lot of people calling nurses and health care workers in general “heroes.” I understand the sentiment. I think most people do that with good intentions. But the wartime rhetoric allows for things to seem like the deaths of health care workers and the illnesses of health care workers were inevitable, and unavoidable, when really we’re being sacrificed by the refusal of the federal government to up its manufacturing of PPE.

There are so many health care deaths now that it’s hard to keep track. Calling us a hero isn’t going to fix that—actually it makes it worse. It makes it almost excusable, like we went to war and fought for you. But we went to war without a gun, and that’s not what I was asking for.

Why aren’t stories about what health care workers are facing being met with more outrage? Why aren’t people madder?

I mean, why aren’t people madder about children being locked up at the border?

Have you been bringing the same signs to other protests? 

The last one I brought said, “Nurses fighting for our lives support worker safety at Amazon, MTA, Delta, Whole Foods, USPS, Instacart, Trader Joe’s, FedEx, FreshDirect, NYC Schools.” The other side said, “All essential workers are care workers.” As soon as an essential worker demands they have a mask or sick time to get over COVID or hand sanitizer, they become a health care worker. They’re preventing cases. When you stand up for your rights like that, in my mind, you become a health care worker.

Who do you think in particular should stop calling health care workers and essential workers heroes?

The ones that really bother me are when companies like Walmart call us heroes when they’re not protecting the health of their essential workers, and they’re essentially giving us more patients. When a company does it, I think it’s incredibly insulting. Do not use my situation to advertise when you’re doing so poorly on behalf of your workers.

There’s a huge explosion of cases in Iowa meatpacking factories, and I read the governor is not shutting down these factories [to take the time to] sanitize them. These are the people that, when they call me a hero, it offends me. Not my aunt.

How do you feel about sidewalk chalk messages and the clapping that’s been happening at 7 p.m.? Does that stuff annoy you? 

[laughs] I just would like to challenge people who are doing that … It is nice. We appreciate the support that we’re getting from the community. We feel left behind by the federal government, but we’re receiving a lot of support from our community in terms of food, thank-yous and donations. But I do challenge people who are clapping, writing in sidewalk chalk, to go a step further.

A lot of clapping is actually happening in public housing. People are clapping because their family members have died. They know what we’re going through. I think there’s a different feeling when a wealthy person who is not doing anything more to help our cause and is not experiencing what the working class people of New York are experiencing—that’s when I have a problem.

What should people be doing to go a step further?

Call your political representatives to support the Defense Production Act, support the extension of social distancing measures, wear a mask in public, donate your stimulus check if you don’t need it, support labor movements within the world of essential workers, be kind to your neighbors and to essential workers. I encourage people to give gifts to their USPS and FedEx people—little things like if you have extra masks, extra hand sanitizer, give it to those workers who are keeping their lives moving.

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to What Next.