The Hero

My father was a doctor. In his small town where we lived he was adored. As a boy I saw Dad as a hero, standing against illness, repairing broken bodies, relieving suffering. One morning a grownup came to the front door, his hand wrapped in a bloody towel. His horse had bit his hand. I looked up and I saw the blood dripping. I called Dad, who took the man into the Surgery and closed the door. After a while the man walked out, his hand in a spotless white bandage. Dad had repaired him. Dad, the hero.
Fourteen years later I entered the Oratory Competition at my city school. I spoke about doctors and I called them ‘society’s noblest sons.’ My father read my speech and said, ‘Darling, I’m afraid that’s not true. Doctors aren’t so noble.’
I had been reading ‘The Story of San Michele’, the memoir of a Swedish doctor who worked in fin de siecle France. A cholera outbreak in Naples saw the young doctor leave the safety of Paris to work among the Naples poor. In the plague hospital the doctor worked alongside a nurse. The nurse was young, beautiful, a nun. With death all about them, the two young people felt the call of their vital flesh. I read the old doctor’s account, modest, intense and arousing. I saw the two walking with eyes open, day after day, into the valley of death. How could I not see them as heroes? I did not alter those words. My speech convinced the judges and I won the contest.
Today the plague rages about us. At the outset, before contagion struck down the many, the principal of my clinic offered to release from duty any clinician who feared catching the virus. I felt shocked. We had worked through AIDS, when any pinprick might mean death. (I did in fact suffer a needlestick injury at the hands of one of my infected patients.) We had worked though the Swine Flu and through SARS. That was our job, our calling. How could I leave and sit it out at home?
Today I sit at home. I have closed the door, closed myself and my wife in, closed the world out. I feel like Noah might have, as, closed in his Ark, he saw the waters rise upon those locked out.
Meanwhile my younger colleagues work on. They all have spouses, aged parents, small children, whom they might infect. With eyes open they work on.
Friends and relatives send me emails, congratulating me, thanking me, for taking good care of myself. My children thank me. Each letter, every approbation for my prudent (read, ‘cowardly’) retreat heaps burning coals upon my head. Praise appals when you know it to be false. No hero, I know heroes when I see them. If in these days of plague, you consult a doctor, if you are treated by a nurse, you will know them too.