March 30, 2023


Heroes Are Human: Lessons in Resilience, Courage, and Wisdom from the COVID Front Lines. By Bob Delaney with Dave Scheiber. City Point Press. $26.99.

     A better title for this exploration of the lives and turmoil of healthcare workers during the COVID pandemic would have been “Heroes Are Human, Too,” because that would emphasize the idea that in addition to being widely described as heroic in stories and on signage, the people slogging through the pandemic were and are also human beings with human fears, frailties and susceptibility to burnout and post-traumatic stress (or, more accurately, during-trauma stress).

     This is a book best read by not starting at the beginning: skip the self-serving Preface and most of the first chapter, in which Bob Delaney talks mainly about himself, his background, his career, his previous books, the various well-known people with whom he is acquainted, and so forth. The self-aggrandizement is quite unnecessary, because the value of this book lies not in who Delaney is but in who the people are whose stories the book tells – and, even more than who they are, what they are in the face of COVID-19 and what they were able to do, indeed needed to do, to help everyone around them get through one of the toughest times in anyone’s memory.

     In some ways, a book, any book, is not the best way to communicate what Delaney and Dave Scheiber seek to put across in Heroes Are Human. It is a matter of timing: one of the many frustrations of dealing with COVID-19 has been the rapid changing of the infectious landscape and the sociopolitical currents swirling around it. Delaney’s Preface to the book is dated February 2022, which seems like a date in ancient history from the vantage point of more than a year later. The “COVID Front Lines” of this book’s subtitle are former front lines, with the disease itself and society’s response to it having metamorphosed in numerous ways since the book was written.

     What readers can take from the book, then, has to be information and emotion that are applicable beyond the specific pandemic times during which the work was created and that have something worthwhile to communicate no matter what stage of the pandemic we may be in – even if it has been reclassified as no longer a pandemic (whether for justifiable or unjustifiable reasons). The overarching theme here – that healthcare workers wound up with symptoms of post-traumatic stress because of the enormous difficulties of coping with patients in a poorly understood environment of never-ending crisis – is not especially valuable, having been explored and discussed many times and in many places. What elements are useful in this book are the personal stories that thoroughly humanize the bland statistics so often used to describe the widespread depredations of COVID-19 – along with some of the prescriptive material that Delaney, who himself has suffered from post-traumatic stress, offers to pandemic survivors (whether healthcare workers or not: in a sense, every reader of this book is a pandemic survivor).

     The many first-person stories in the book are moving, and some are eye-opening. One COVID survivor writes of his “near-death experience” and the “vivid, lingering recollection of a certain sound that played inside my head” after his recovery – eventually learning that it was “the alarm for a ventilator, a signal to nurses that there was some kind of problem with the equipment,” and that the sound had somehow seeped into his unconscious mind while he was comatose. Then he mentions another remembered sound, “of a soothing, gentle voice directed at me following the haunting tone” – the voice of nurses caring for him and keeping him alive. That sort of first-hand experience is itself haunting in its description and is sure to make readers lucky enough to have escaped severe COVID all the more grateful for their own health and for the people who would have been there for them if needed.

     The book abounds in stories like this, and not only from patients. For example, one intensive-care-unit nurse manager, after noting that “the situation was new and frightening for all of us,” produces some details that are truly harrowing: “I’ll never forget walking into my COVID ICU and seeing every single patient intubated – something I had never seen before in my career. I spoke to some of the other nurses, who had been in the profession for decades, and they had never seen anything like it either.” In fact – and many professionals involved in COVID care would say this – “I felt as if I never stopped working throughout the entire pandemic.”

     More than working, the healthcare professionals never stopped caring, nor did they stop worrying about their own health, the health of their colleagues, and the health of their families – indeed, many lost family members during the pandemic, if not to COVID, then to the isolation and overwhelming loneliness that struck so deeply into so many lives and that will have repercussions for years, if not decades. The experiences are seared into memories: “We had to bag bodies right in front of patients, awake, aware, and scared…How devastating for the patients who saw this, as it was for us. It was unbearable, but we had to bear it.”

     So what made all this, any of this, bearable? What did healthcare workers on the front lines do? What could they do? This is where the prescriptive part of Heroes Are Human comes in. Drawing on his own experiences and a number of self-care programs for people confronting trauma, Delaney gives various recommendations for coping strategies, ranging from mindfulness to engagement with nature – and focusing in particular on reflection. At the end of each chapter, a page called “Reflection Direction” makes specific recommendations either as a general approach or based on that chapter’s content. These ideas are many and varied: Create a “reflection blog…to document your emotional, physical, and cognitive state.” Practice gratitude to obtain “higher levels of resiliency.” Understand “compassion fatigue” and find ways to have compassion for yourself, not only for others. “Reflect on the role love has in healing.” Think of and learn to practice “the Six C’s of Leadership,” which are “character, competence, courage, communication, commitment, and caring.” There are many more suggestions, not all of them applicable to every situation or every person, but all of them food for thought and all having the potential to help readers better cope with trauma in their own lives while becoming more appreciative of the enormous sacrifices that healthcare workers have been making to keep COVID patients alive and restore as many as possible to health and well-being. The reality is that heroes – real ones, not the chiseled absurdities of comics and cartoons – really are human as well as heroic. No real person can be a hero all the time, even though that is more or less what the COVID pandemic has demanded of many healthcare workers – some of whom have paid a tremendous price for trying to live up to the ultimately unattainable heroic ideal. Yes, Heroes Are Human suffers from some flaws in presentation, emphasis and (inevitably) timeliness, as the fallout from the COVID pandemic continues to accumulate. But the book enviably shows just how much healthcare workers have gone through, how much they still go through, what the effects of the pandemic are on them and on those they care for, and what every reader can do to develop a greater level of resiliency to become better able to cope with the next overwhelming systemic shock that is sure to come from somewhere, somehow, at some time.

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