Yet again, however, compliance depends on the culture at the institution. Trainees may be hesitant to report violations because they don’t want to get their employer in trouble. “You don’t want to ever say ‘no’ to the person that is going to write a letter of recommendation for you,” Ugwu says.
The pandemic presents an opportunity to rectify problems that should have been addressed years ago. That’s why Plasencia, Ugwu, and the rest of the Committee of Interns and Residents recently launched a Resident Bill of Rights demanding a living wage, an 80-hour cap on working hours per week, sick and parental leave, the right to unionize, and access to mental health services, among other things.
Beyond the overarching Resident Bill of Rights, residents are also looking for solutions that can be implemented more immediately. Jocelyn Fitzgerald, MD, a fellow in Washington, DC, created a petition asking ACGME for hazard pay for residents and fellows that garnered more than 21,000 signatures by the time she submitted it. “Many companies including Target and Walmart have offered their employees hazard pay, while physicians, with at least 12 years of training on the riskiest front lines, receive nothing,” she writes in the petition.
All of the demands have so far gone unanswered. “It is beyond disappointing that we don’t have these kinds of established protections,” Plasencia says. Residents are “willing to step up. But we want to know we have someone in our corner to protect us.”
Janelle, the resident who nearly donned a body bag in lieu of a trash bag, doesn’t feel protected. She feels exposed and frustrated that patients are dying while she rummages through supply closets for a donated Yankee rain poncho to cover her scrubs.
There is a lot Janelle doesn’t want to think about these days: The tragedies unfolding in the ICU; the people who are her age on ventilators; the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that her family, who co-signed the documents, will have to pay back if she dies. So each night when she lays down in bed, her mind racing, she tries to forget. She pretends it’s a normal day and that her only problems are the ones she had 2 months ago — buying a car, finding a new apartment, hiring movers. She fixates on the mundane until sleep overtakes her and her mind goes blank. If she’s lucky, she sleeps straight through until morning and doesn’t remember her dreams.
Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based journalist whose work also appears in Forbes, USA Today, and NBC. She can be found on Twitter @ambergib and Instagram @amberyv. Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Nature. She can be found on Twitter @cwillyard.
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