Recapturing Public Compassion & Empathy for Frontline Healthcare Workers

Over the US Thanksgiving holiday, a photo of an ER doctor comforting a COVID-19 patient became the top story on many news outlets. The photo is heartbreaking and captures the struggle faced by patients and the frontline healthcare workers taking care of them. Both are suffering alone.

Dr. Joseph Varon comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas.

At the start of the pandemic, there was an outpouring of support for frontline healthcare workers – the doctors, nurses, technicians, personal support workers, administrators, cleaning staff, etc. – that were battling COVID-19. Local businesses donated meals and PPE. Ordinary citizens put signs thanking healthcare workers on their front lawns. New Yorkers even banged pots and pans from their balconies every night. It was so inspiring.

Now that COVID-19 is surging again, there has not been a corresponding resurgence in that public support for frontline healthcare workers…and they need it now more than ever.

Early in the pandemic, there was slack in the healthcare system – some areas were still COVID free and had excess capacity to handle overflow from areas that were harder hit. When New York was deep in crisis in the Spring, doctors and nurses from across the country came in to help. Sadly, there is no slack in the system anymore.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta summed it up well in his recent article:

Now, state after state reports hospital systems reaching their breaking points. It’s not just that there are fewer hospital beds available, but front line health care workers and support staff — from doctors and nurses to orderlies to the hospital cleaning crews — are getting fatigued, worn out and sick themselves in ever-growing numbers. And there is no one to replace them.

The doctor in that heartbreaking photo, Dr. Joseph Var, chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, told reporters that he had worked for 256 days nonstop during the pandemic. In an interview with CNN he also expressed his frustration over the growing number of people being hospitalized – because it is preventable.

“I do this day in and day out and people are out there doing the wrong thing. People are out there in bars, restaurants, malls — it is crazy — it’s like we work, work, work, work, work and people don’t listen and then they end up in my ICU,” he said.

“What people need to know is that — I don’t want to have to be hugging them. They need to do the basic things: keep your social distance; wear your mask; wash your hands and avoid going to places where there are a lot of people. Very simple. If people can do that health care workers like me will be able to — hopefully rest.”

So what happened to the public support and empathy for healthcare workers? Did it all evaporate as the COVID fatigue set in? Has the hope of a vaccine made us forget that healthcare workers still need our support? I am as perplexed as you are.

More importantly, however, how we might recapture some of that early empathy for those that are helping save the lives of our friends and family? Is there something we can do to re-light the flame so that it burns brightly again?

It truly breaks my heart to see the stories on social and mainstream media of clinicians describing their own physical and mental weariness. I cried alongside Dr Shirlee Xi, Associate Director of Hospital Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare in Minnesota as she described how “it feels like suffocation”.

Join the next HCLDR chat as we discuss the waning of public support for healthcare workers and what might be done about it – Tuesday December 8th at 8:30pm EST (for your local time click here).

  • T1 Why has public support for frontline healthcare workers waned as this pandemic has wore on?
  • T2 Is social and mainstream media the best ways to re-ignite support for healthcare workers?
  • T3 What can we do as individuals to support healthcare workers in meaningful ways?
  • T4 When we look back on the pandemic, will the compassion & empathy shown this frontline healthcare workers inspire more people to go into healthcare or deter them?


Gupta, Sanjay MD. “If the United States were my patient: Science cannot rescue us from ourselves”, CNN¸ 6 December 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Neustaeter, Brooklyn. “Burnout warning from frontline health-care workers worried you aren’t helping”, CTV News, 26 November 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Cullinane, Susannah. “After 256 days working nonstop, doctor pleads with public to help halt Covid-19”, CNN, 1 December 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

“’It feels like suffocation’: Doctor describes Covid-19 working conditions”, CNN, 5 December 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Schade, Sue. “Well past time to support our healthcare workers”,, 18 November 2020,, accessed 7 December 2020

Schade, Sue. “Well past time to support our healthcare workers – Part 2”,, 3 December 2020,, accessed 7 December 2020

Nelson, Tamaryn. “Nightmares, exhaustion and burnout: health workers describe the emotional toll of life on the frontline”, Amnesty International, 10 October 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Barello, Serena et al. “Burnout and somatic symptoms among frontline healthcare professionals at the peak of the Italian COVID-19 pandemic.”, Psychiatry Research, 27 May 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Yong, Ed. “‘No One Is Listening to Us’ – More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.”, The Atlantic, 13 November 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Luckenbaugh, Michele. “An apology to frontline health care workers”, KevinMD, 24 November 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Jeffery, Adam. “New Yorkers stop and give daily thanks and gratitude for coronavirus frontline workers”, CNBC, 5 April 2020,, accessed 6 December 2020

Image Credit

Photo by Rusty Watson on Unsplash

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