Veterinarian Meg Herriot offers her perspective on community, empathy, and connection during the coronavirus pandemic.
I write the following with great gratitude for the nurses, doctors, grocery store workers and those on the frontlines. They are heroes.
I used to feel guilty about being called an essential worker. ... I'm a healthcare worker (for animals). So, I’m not exactly on the front lines. But, as I was talking to a colleague, we still bear the responsibility of deciding whether we should go to work. Going to work for us doesn't mean teleworking. It's just not possible. Going to work for us means getting pretty up-close to our fellow co-workers (as much as we would like to be able to examine an angry cat from 6 feet away, it just isn't feasible). We have to make daily decisions on risk, our families, our livelihoods.
I've noticed that everything we do at work just takes longer. People also seem to get angrier and more easily frustrated. A colleague remarked, "Side-effect of COVID whether you test positive or not: ability to become crazy and mad much quicker." I've noticed people are sharing much more of their life stories. Sometimes, it's very helpful as far as understanding what's going on with the pet. Sometimes, I just have to remind myself this might be that person's most meaningful interaction of the day. While I'm not helping their pet directly, I may be helping them by patiently listening.
We also have to have empathy. I have found myself and colleagues taking risks and being compassionate, walking a line between personal safety and compassion. Euthanasia is a hard time in "normal" circumstances. Try adding in a pandemic. Different clinics have navigated this issue differently. I kind of walk a line between personal safety and being compassionate. We try to do things as we can outside (not possible with angry cats though). Euthanasia by nature involves compassion. People in mourning have difficulty keeping their masks on through tears. They long for touch. I was never big on hugging strangers, but I sometimes would touch a hand or arm to convey my empathy. Gone are those days.
I've found that people are thirsting for community. We are MADE to be in community. This time is particularly hard for my single coworkers who don't have family in the area. They have said if they didn't have this work, riskier than working at home as it is, they would go crazy. They have admitted to going borderline crazy already.
Our retired priest at our parish wanted to fist-bump people after the last Mass we went to. While my son has been trained NOT TO TOUCH anything or anyone at this time, I turned to my son and said, "give him a fist bump, I have the hand sanitizer ready, but we need to give him a fist bump." Different people have different requirements for physical connection. Neuropsychology says that the power of touch is that it releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and that thus decreases cortisol. Decreasing cortisol helps our resilience. Whether it's physical touch or trying to touch someone by listening, we have the ability to help each other be resilient at this time.
Everyone is walking and negotiating different aspects of their health at this time. Whether it's preventing an infection or preserving mental health, we need the support of each other. Whether it's listening, touching or reaching out, we all need to take care of each other.
In some ways, aren't we all essential workers? We are all essential to each other. Community is essential.
Copyright 2020 Meg Herriot
Image: August De Richelieu (2020), Pexels