At Home in the Trenches

By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW

I’ve been in health care now for about 19 years.  I think I’ve mentioned before (I mean, it’s been a year… and let’s be honest, I only have so much to say) that it was never a specific goal of mine to work in health care.  I followed my heart, and my life experiences brought me here.  It feels like home to me, in part because I spent a lot of time in hospitals as a kid.  My grandmother was one of those “frequent flyers” we often talk about – with CHF, three different cancers, and countless surgeries that she would talk about like they were badges of honor.  Then I had my own health crisis as a young adult and was forced to find some kind of comfort level in a hospital.  And now I love it here.  It’s hard for me to imagine working anywhere else.

Over the past year of this surreal worldwide crisis, we in health care have seen the community at large to some degree come to recognize what we’ve already known:  that we work every day in the “trenches.”  That term, of course, comes from wartime, in reference to the soldiers who had to live day after day in actual trenches, right up in front where the action was.  They were dirty, and scary, and the soldiers spent hours in close quarters facing life threatening situations together.  It made them like family – maybe even closer.  They at times had to choose whether to put their own lives on the line for their comrades; and when that time came they usually did.  I use past tense, but the fact is that there are people all over the world in that actual situation now.  And I truly believe that we in health care can relate to them, especially over the past 13 months.  And I mean all of us in health care, because we all play an important part.  Not just those at the bedside.

As the trench workers throughout this pandemic we are affected by it in a unique way.  And I believe that will continue to be true for years to come.  We know the best and the worst that it has brought out in people.  And we know the bond that comes with being comrades in the trenches.  It’s difficult for me to put into words what that bond is like – even in conversation with my own comrades.  The way we interact with each other is different from any other work environment I’ve experienced (and I’m getting old so I have a reasonably good-sized frame of reference).  I also think that we have a unique drive to look out for each other and support each other. Maybe it’s because we do face life and death nearly every day.  The fragility of human life is something that most people walking around out there don’t have to think about most of the time; we see it daily.  If we’re paying attention, this reality alone gives us special insight.  And if we’re smart, it also gives us a drive to savor moments, and avoid wasting time on things that don’t matter in the long run.  Or things that don’t make us happy or fulfilled.

I realize this is an optimistic take, but hey, that’s what I’m here for.  This bond that working in the trenches together gives us is going to be essential to our individual and collective healing over this thing.  When I think about the community as a whole, I think about it bouncing back after the pandemic.  But for us, it’s going to mean healing.  And it’s going to require every one of us to continue to be present for our comrades in the trenches.  Trust me – being present for others in their healing is what gives us the best chance of healing ourselves.