“…like a lamb that is brought to the slaughter.”- Jeremiah 11:19
During my time in the US Navy, there would be prolonged times at sea; beautiful times of calm waters, a cool breeze over the weather deck, and even swim calls where we would swim and splash carefree with our shipmates. But this was not always the case. Calm was not a constant, and each sailor held an understanding and a healthy respect for the ocean. We were aware that what appeared calm and cool at one moment, could shift into a life or death situation in another moment. It was during one such time I was introduced to the term 'expendable' as it related to human capital.
Our extended time of addressing COVID-19 is beginning to ring eerily similar to that time for the unknown essential workers, namely sterile processors. This group of professionals are what those in the know refer to as 'the heart of the hospital.' They may not be at your bedside or getting you crushed ice, but they are diligently working, now fighting even more to ensure that the equipment, scopes, and instruments that the doctors, nurses, and scrub techs are using on you, IN YOU, and for you are not only clean, but sterile. They are diligently fighting infection and working countless hours in decontamination so that when the surgical instruments are needed, they are free from gross matter and bioburden- sometimes even cement and other adhesive agents that were used to facilitate a successful procedure prior to yours.
The same holds true for bus drivers, train operators, facilities personnel, truack drivers, etc.
Which brings me to the cautionary tale in the making and the question, “Has essential become synonymous with expendable?”
In reference to the time I mentioned earlier, our ship was caught in a typhoon that hit the island of Guam. Due to the size of our ship and the speed of the storm we were unable to outrun it. We are unable to outrun COVID-19. The storm came with a ferocity and an intent to destroy for which we were not prepared. Neither our healthcare, financial, education, social nor government infrastructures were prepared for the impact of COVID-19. The storm nullified radars, radios, rendered over half of the crew unable to function in the normal duties, and demanded flexibility and an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. COVID-19 had restructured our daily freedoms and demanded all of our resources.
Our chain of command reminded us during the storm that should any of us be swept overboard, they would not be able to send rescue workers into the turbulent sea to save us. We understood; because we knew and had agreed to the dangers. Dangers that were both known and unknown. We knew we were expendable (it was communicated in Basic Training), we knew what benefits would go towards our future, and our families should tragedy strike.
Not so with the not as visible- yet still essential- healthcare workers. Governors and executives are asking this category of essential workers to work in decontamination without PPE. Someone has to raise the alarm and use their voice. Someone has to say, ‘this isn’t risking infection and cross-contamination, it’s practically guaranteeing it.’ To those not familiar with sterile processing, there are many bugs, bacteria, and other dangers not visible to the naked eye. Although they are not as notorious as COVID-19, they are just as deadly.
Hear ye, hear ye: Sterile Processors donned PPE before COVID-19 because they were already working against harmful pathogens. Essential does not need to be expendable. To use words that communicate essential while practicing processes that communicate expendable further promotes the disparity and departmental division that many fight so hard to remove. To all who are champions of sterile processing and infection control, these essentials are trusting YOU; to all who have passion and resources to be the voice of those that go unheard, please use your voice and influence to speak for these essential workers that do not readily come to mind when the average American thinks of healthcare. Families and futures depend on it.