When I embarked on a career in medicine in 1973, I considered it a privilege. But I also knew I would be committing myself to long hours away from my family, just like my father.
My wife often joked, with a tinge of bitterness, about how our children knew they had a father because they had seen pictures of me. I hated the joke, but I deserved it because it was the job I signed up for.
My classmates and I knew we would spend many “all-nighters” taking care of sick patients. We knew the drama and sleep deprivation would make our blood levels of stress and inflammatory hormones skyrocket, posing a chronic health and psychological risk of its own. But it came with the job we signed up for.
As a resident, I knew many patients would pose additional risks to my health and safety. Tuberculous patients would cough on me. I would stick myself with needles from hepatitis patients and drug addicts.
I started my career just before the HIV epidemic emerged. I still remember the fear. At first, no one knew much about it, other than it could spread to others, and would eventually kill everyone who came down with it. I joined other doctors and nurses who took care of those patients despite the assumption that we could contract the debilitating and lethal disease from them. We donned protective gear, not knowing if it would save us from the same fate or not. We did it because that’s the job we signed up for.
We knew that when patients died or were injured in our care we could get blamed and sued whether it was our fault or not. I lost a patient despite using every skill I had, and was then surrounded by family members screaming that I had killed their mother. It left me shaken and sleepless for a month. I know the statistics that doctors are twice as likely to commit suicide as other people. But that’s the job we signed up for.
But here’s what I didn’t sign up for. I didn’t sign up to take care of patients with a deadly infection, far more contagious than HIV, without the most basic tools of self protection — gloves, goggles, masks and gowns — standard medical equipment since well before World War I. I didn’t sign up to be told by the CDC that I should show up to work with a bandana over my face if my hospital is out of masks.
I didn’t sign up to watch our president hypnotize the country into “reality distancing,” lying about how anyone could get tested and equating the crisis with car accidents. I didn’t sign up to hear his hunches about vaccines and miracle cures that don’t exist, “beautiful,” life-saving ventilators that had not been manufactured, and ships loaded with supplies to the rescue that would not arrive.
I didn’t sign up to listen to a commander-in-chief dismiss his own responsibility because he's "not a shipping clerk," that the buck stops everywhere but at his desk, and who believes his mismanagement of this nightmare is worthy of a "ten out of ten."
I didn’t sign up for protocols from our scientific agencies to be warped and filtered by White House lackeys whose top priority was saving the political “nine lives” of one dear leader, instead of the literal lives of 330 million people. I didn’t sign up to help the president drag the country into “empathy distancing,” playing Russian roulette with the elderly and infirm because he only values human life as it affects the stock market.
I didn’t sign up to have the response to this unprecedented national crisis crafted by the anti-science, non-physician know nothings on Fox News — “America will be open for business again on Easter.”
If called upon, when the much anticipated tsunami of disease that has flooded New York slams into Salt Lake City, I will do my job to the best of my ability, because it’s the job I signed up for. As one of the hundreds of thousands of health care workers who will risk their own lives to try and save others, our eyes are wide open. But we didn’t sign up to be betrayed by our president in doing so.
Brian Moench, M.D., is a Salt Lake City anesthesiologist in private practice and author of the non-fiction book, “Death by Corporation: The Killing of Humankind in the Age of Monster Corporations.”