Erica Harris, MD, wearing full personal protective equipment, holds a closeup photo of her face.
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

To ED Doctor, Her Miner Grandfather Was the Real Hero

By on 09/28/2020

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One in an ongoing series

She comes home after work, exhausted, feeling overwhelmed, worried about being contaminated: it’s another day as an emergency physician at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia during the height of the COVID crisis.

She’s greeted by another poster, another chalked message on her driveway from her neighbors: “Hometown hero,” they say. “Thank you for your service.”

Erica Harris, MD, is choked up by the tribute, grateful for all the support given healthcare workers during the COVID outbreak.  But she’s also discomfited by the label of “hero,” a term often used during the pandemic to describe medical professionals on the front lines.

Yes, the effort of healthcare workers to battle COVID is “important and necessary,” Dr. Harris says. But it hardly makes her feel like a caped crusader saving the world.

“I’d come home and feel awful and tired; that’s not what a hero feels like,” she says. “They’re super strong and I’m shrinking and dirtied and people don’t even want to be around me. My husband and I were discussing whether I should move out. I didn’t feel desirable and wonderful, I felt radioactive.”

From Medical Journal to Documentary

The disconnect inspired Dr. Harris to write an essay that was published in the July 16 online edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It caught the eye of filmmaker Glenn Holsten, who made a short documentary about Dr. Harris that appeared online in his Recovery Series feature last week.

The essay is a meditation on her grandfather, a gold and silver miner in Idaho who battled for the right of miners to wear protective equipment. He was an outspoken advocate for justice who fearlessly confronted his foes face to face. He’s a legend and a hero in her family.

Erica Harris, MD
Erica Harris, MD

 “The dominant rhetoric of this pandemic has been, quite positively, one of admiration and respect for frontline workers, including doctors, and I am bolstered by the warmth and support I have received,” Dr. Harris writes.

Still, “I wonder what my grandfather would think of me claiming this title. Would he find it as ill-fitting as the extra-large surgical gown and comically oversized face shield I now wear while intubating patients in respiratory distress? Worse, would it be a slap in the face of the real heroes like him, the war veterans and those architects of our nation who very intentionally risked their lives in the service of that vision?”

It isn’t that Dr. Harris has low self-esteem that makes her reject the accolades from a besieged world grateful for her service. But “no one went into emergency medicine unaware that there might be global pandemic,” she says. “We were not ignorant of the fact that could happen. So, we’re going to work and it’s rougher than normal but we wouldn’t abandon ship and stop working. Especially in an emergency.”

Awaiting Heart Surgery

Privately, Dr. Harris has to endure another struggle that borders on the heroic. When she was 24 years old, she had her aortic valve replaced because of a congenital defect; it took her almost a year to fully recover. Now, at 39, she needs to have it replaced again, and an aneurysm on her aorta repaired.  She has check-ups every six months and is postponing surgery until her 3-year-old twins are more self-sufficient.

“I live six months to six months, hoping to go as long as I can before I need the next operation,” she says. “I’m hoping it will get to the point where my kids are old enough to need less lifting and carrying; I can’t do it while recovering from this surgery. I’m not worried about their care – my husband is a stay-at-home father – I’m worried it will affect my inability to interact with them.”

She says she is symptom free and believes her experience has made her more empathetic to her patients. “I know what it’s like to be in pain and be vulnerable and not want to be in the hospital at all,” she says.

Dr. Harris says she’s accustomed to living with the surgery hanging over her head, and says sardonically that her life is often a collision of catastrophes. “Our washer and dryer broke and our plumbing went out, all during COVID,” at the time she was showering and washing her scrubs immediately when she came home after work.

“This is how my life works. Things that can go wrong will go wrong. There came a point where I felt as long as my house isn’t on fire and my kids are healthy, I’m OK with everything. My standards are that low.”

And there is her grandfather’s memory to keep her going.

“When the dread starts to set in, when it gets hard to breathe, I adjust my N95 mask and remind myself of this: I am the granddaughter of a man who worked the depths of Idaho mines and knew a thing or two about personal protective equipment hell,” she writes.  “My challenges as an emergency medicine physician during a modern pandemic . . .pale in comparison.”

Top photo copyright 2020, OC87 Productions

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