In phase I of any emergency, you don’t overthink – you just respond. This is the part where you are focused on surviving and performing your job, and if you’re well trained you go on automatic pilot. If you overthink you won’t be able to function because you’ll be paralyzed by fear.
So you wake up, put on your uniform, and go to work. Then you come home, go to bed, and get up and do it all over again. This goes on as long as necessary until the emergency is resolved. Whether you’re a soldier in a war or a nurse in a pandemic, you do what you’ve trained for.
Then at some point, the initial emergency is over, but your brain doesn’t understand it yet. So there’s a period of time where you’re a little lost. The pandemic/war analogy is a good one, because in both you know you could die at any time. In both, you see so much death that you become numb to it. In your world, you’re either alive or you’re dead. Your lizard brain has been in fight mode so long it doesn’t know how to turn it off and return to normal.
The really fucked up thing about the viral pandemic is that you know it won’t end until there’s a reliable vaccine. So this could go on for years. It creates an untenable state.
Soldiers are trained for the chaos of battle. Emergency nurses and doctors in a first world country are trained to respond to mass casualty events, but they expect the supplies they need to respond will be there. When they aren’t, it creates a powerful internal trauma. They begin to feel helpless yet are still expected to do their job, so that’s what they try to do. There is not a single colleague I am aware of that didn’t feel like they wanted to be there for the sick and for their peers.
Right now, for the moment, in NYC it appears to have plateaued, so for the first time there’s a pause to reflect. But your brain has trouble switching into reflection mode because it still thinks you might be killed at any moment – and truthfully, it’s right.
But now in Phase II, you begin to reflect on all of the first responders who died, and it’s overwhelming. There are the deaths from the disease, and then there are the suicides from responders so traumatized by what they saw they couldn’t bear it.
And while you’re trying to put your prefrontal cortex back in charge, you realize that as soon as the quarantine is relaxed, it’s all going to start up again. And if you didn’t get sick, you have no idea whether your body built up any antibodies to protect you, so until there’s a vaccine your brain has to stay in fight mode indefinitely.
A couple of days ago one of my younger peers who has a military background and took part in active combat was in the locker room getting ready to go home. Casually, while getting his gear together, he said something that stopped me in my tracks: “This is scarier than anything I saw in Afghanistan.”
It’s going to be a long road ahead.