Each night in cities across the globe, health care workers are praised through sound — people on roofs or leaning out windows, yelling or clapping out thanks to the many risking their lives to fight COVID-19. It’s an inarguably feel-good ceremony, with videos of the tradition going viral across the web.
But for some doctors on the frontlines, especially emergency medicine residents, it feels like an empty gesture. “It’s nice to be appreciated and called a hero, but it’d be nicer to see something more tangible,” says an ER resident in Texas who, like the other two interviewed for this story, requested anonymity because of his job. “They’re clapping for us every day, and that’s cute and all, but if you really do look at us as heroes, do us a favor and write to your congressman and say, ‘Why don’t you forgive their loans?’” adds an ER resident in Chicago.
This week, New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney introduced a bill that could do just that. If passed, the Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act would eliminate outstanding balances on eligible federal loans for health care workers immediately. In a statement, Maloney said that health care workers “should not have to worry about their financial security” and that the bill is aimed at “help[ing] take care of the people taking care of us.”
For ER residents, who make up more than 7,000 of the roughly 135,000 active U.S. medical residents — doctors in the midst of an intense postgraduate period of training — the bill would be life-changing. These new or recent graduates are not only still in the learning stage of medicine, they’re now soldiers fighting on the frontlines of a war no one saw coming. Thrust to the center of this unprecedented global pandemic, they are forced to come face-to-face with the sickest of patients daily, enduring physical and mental stress in layers of personal protective equipment, all while earning salaries too low to make a dent in their student loans.
“I make under $60,000 doing a job where I’m working crazy hours and risking my life,” says the Chicago ER resident, who is also carrying “nearly half a million dollars” in student debt. “It would be nice to know that my paycheck could go toward planning for my future versus losing about maybe 30 percent of my check to my loans.” According to Nerd Wallet, ER residents make an average of $57,800 a year, the second-lowest salary of any specialty — and an especially low number given that the average medical student is carrying $200,000 in student loans.
The Texas-based ER resident, who contracted the coronavirus while visiting New York, joined his colleagues in the ER roughly two weeks after recovery. Seeing patients getting sick and dying from the very illness he battled has proved exceptionally tough physically and emotionally. Still, he says, if the government was offering more support, it would make things easier.
“It’s a sacrifice that we’re willing to make, but it would be nice to see some tangible appreciation for that,” the resident says. “All these bills being passed — small businesses are being helped and large corporations, and in the grand scheme of things, whether it’s partial student debt relief or hazard pay, whatever the case may be, that would just be a small drop in the bucket compared to the trillions that are being spent on other programs, though those are necessary too.”
A third ER resident has had a similar experience, currently making $56,000 a year and shouldering $325,000 in student debt. Initially, the resident’s hospital tried to protect residents by mandating that they not treat COVID patients. But when cases began to escalate in March, the plan was abandoned. “It quickly became untenable as a near majority of our ER patients were COVID patients, and we were getting cases of infection from patients with no COVID symptoms,” the resident tells Yahoo Life. “So we are exposed to the same risk as our well-paid attendings are, but with a fraction of the pay.” (ER attending physicians, by contrast, make an average of $270,000 a year).
The anxiety over finances has been compounded by rumors that two medical residents in New York died from COVID-19 after working with inadequate PPE. (New York officials have not confirmed this.) Weeks later, a 37-year-old oral maxillofacial surgery resident in Michigan reportedly succumbed to the coronavirus. “Stories of residents in New York dying scared us,” the resident says. “Aside from the immeasurable tragedy of their deaths, we also know that they now [may have] left their families with hundreds of thousands in debt.” Although federal loans are forgiven upon death, not all private loans offer the same protection. It’s unclear if that will change during the pandemic.
But on top of the financial and emotional burdens, many say simply doing their job has gotten harder.
The Chicago resident, who has been treating coronavirus patients since early March, says his hospital had to expand the intensive care unit into the main hospital when the surge hit. “All the residents, we all started picking up extra shifts,” he says. “People who were on vacation or who were on electives canceled or moved it to another part of the year.”
Putting on and removing PPE, he says, suddenly became a job in and of itself. “I wear an N95 and a cap to cover my hair. I’m wearing goggles and double gloves,” the resident says. “When you walk into the room you have to be fully ready to go, and when you leave, you take off the gown, the mask and the first pair of gloves, and then you throw those into a garbage. Then you walk outside and have to take off the N95 — without touching your face — and put it in a brown paper bag because it needs to be reused. Then I take off the goggles and I wipe those down with bleach wipes, and then I finally throw away the last pair of gloves.”
Comparisons to war, he says, feel painfully accurate — and reinforce the need for better treatment. “We’re on the frontline. We’re fighting an enemy we can’t see. What do soldiers do? They go and fight an enemy and they come back and don’t have to worry about the financial hardships of trying to get an education because they made a sacrifice,” he says. “Residents are dying. Doctors are dying. Nurses are dying. I love seeing our elected officials saying, ‘You guys are heroes,’ but if that’s true, show us some appreciation.”
While he’s passionate about medicine and helping people, he says that had he known he’d be risking his life under a mountain of debt, he may not have chosen this path. “If you had told me before I went to med school that there was going to be a pandemic in 2020, I would have honestly reconsidered going to med school,” says the Illinois resident. “My hospital had 10 deaths in the last two weeks ... it’s heartbreaking.”
The third resident agrees. “Of course I appreciate the sentiment behind the clapping, and I don’t want to detract from scared people doing what they can to show appreciation, [but] I hope this also sheds light on the financial treatment of residents in this country,” the resident says. “Most residents/trainee doctors in other countries have a tiny fraction of our debt because their med school is partially subsidized by entities like the NHS and they pay maybe $8,000 to $10,000 per year of school, whereas we are paying $60,000 to 80,000 in most places. When I first left med school, my loans accrued $22,000 of interest before I even started residency.”
All the residents who spoke with Yahoo Life said that they are passionate about the work they do and never imagined it would be easy. But with a pandemic that’s now infected more than 1.3 million Americans, and student loans that will take decades to pay off, the job has become near unbearable. “The decisions we’re making as doctors are really life or death,” the Chicago resident says. “And when you’re looking at our salaries, we’re not getting that.”
CORRECTION 5/13/20: This piece has been updated to accurately reflect the current overall number of active medical residents in the U.S., which is 135,000. The previous number, 16,000, refers to the number of active residents who graduated from international medical schools.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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