Updated: Apr 8
I remember the initial flood of praise that came in from our community as the world began to shut down. From afar we were hailed as heroes and also kept at arm's length in fear we were carrying COVID. We were admired, glorified and compared to unworldly beings such as angels and superheroes. We were given free food for months and it felt good and timely and important to be celebrated. However, I remember also feeling really confused because I did not feel like a superhero or an angel, I felt scared and also at times angry.
In The Clinic Workshops we lead a writing section called COVID stories. This experience is really powerfull as we come together in community and individually focus on one impactful story that we have been carrying with us in our body, mind, and heart since COVID. Many of these stories are patient related, however many are also about the anxiety and constant fear we lived in while caring for patients; scared we were going to get COVID or even worse bring COVID home to our families. After sharing our writings with one another we then put movement to parts of our stories and share them again with each other, allowing the stories to leave our body and help release the traumatic effect it had on us. This moment is one of the most impactful moments of the workshop.
It was during the height of the pandemic when we met on Zoom to begin writing our COVID stories together and sharing the movement we created. That same evening we met dressed in blue scrubs in the streets of Denver, masked and maintaining social distance as we danced our stories out in public. We danced right up until 8:00 pm when everyone opened their windows and began howling in honor of first responders. We danced into the howling and at the end of the dance I also began to howl. I howled as a reminder to our community that we are here just like them, humans with families, fears, and grief.
When you call someone a superhero or an angel you are setting them apart, saying they have skills and resources you do not have. These non-human skills allow superheroes to thrive in situations the general public cannot. So calling nurses superheroes creates a narrative that justifies unjust conditions. Superheroes have capes, can turn invisible or shoot webs from their wrists as they jump off buildings and still survive. However, for the most part, the collective experience, at the beginning of COVID, was that nurses had even less protection than some of the general public. Due to the lack of PPE available, nurses were being asked to fly without a cape and we were all crossing our fingers we would survive. . . many of us did not.
The experience of COVID stories is so impactful because it reminds us that we are not superheroes. In fact, it reminds us we are something greater, we are humans who feel and heal through vulnerability in relationship with one another. It is acknowledging that a situation was hard and devastating and we feel sad and we need help to feel and process together. This acknowledgement and action in community with one another is what prevents burnout.
When calling nurses heroes we are asking them to set themselves apart, to suffer in silence and not ask for what they need because superheroes are self-sufficient. We are not superheroes, we need our teams and leaders to be looking out for us. When we are elevated as superheroes it is more difficult for society and also ourselves to remember and honor our humanity, messiness, emotions, and vulnerability. These are some of our greatest gifts and they are a beautiful entry point into healing and connection with one another. Sharing our tears helps us remember we are not alone, and that suffering is part of the collective human experience.
It is with a wide heart I say thank you when I get called a superhero because I realize the intention and good will behind the comment and with my wide brave heart I also share how this way of thinking can be detrimental to the individual growth of nurses and the nursing profession as a whole.
We are not superheroes, we are qualified professionals who deserve respect and proper recognition that includes a baseline of safe conditions to do our jobs, quality and care from our leaders, educators, executives, policy makers and all who are charged with looking out for and fighting for us as we fight and care for our patients.
Tara Rynders, The Dancing Nurse Educator and Nightingle Luminary, is the CEO and Founder of The Clinic, an arts and play-based immersive theater company that offers workshops and keynotes to create more sustainable, (Re)Brilliant, and equitable healthcare systems.