‘America is not prepared’

Two days ago, this tweet was posted by the @CBSNews account on Twitter:

The young woman’s name is Imaris Vera. She worked, briefly, at Northwestern Medicine hospital in Chicago. If the video above isn’t visible, she is looking tearfully into the camera and relating why she quit her job at the ICU converted into a COVID-19 unit.

As I write, the CBS News tweet has 55.4K likes, 23.9K retweets and has received 25.6K replies. The content is pretty sensational, the appeal for a news organization is obvious, and the top reply is this:

WATCH: CBS News Posts Fraudulent Video

Contra @TheRightMelissa and @Cernovich conflating the viral video with Jussie Smollett, these are not the same situation. Imaris Vera made a social media post which got picked up by a major news media organization, while Smollett concocted a conscious and premeditated fraudulent crime against himself, for gain. The video is neither fake nor fraudulent, and Imaris Vera is not Jussie Smollett 2.0. However, all was not as it first seemed.

After Sen. Bernie Sanders retweeted the video, Vera responded to him via Twitter to provide a clarification. I can’t find the response tweet (her Instagram account is offline, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she has suspended or deleted her Twitter account as well), so I am relying on this National Review article for some details. Her response prompted CBS News to follow up with this clarification tweet:

To restate my understanding, Ms. Vera confirmed she did receive an N95 mask from the hospital, and was instructed to wear it inside patients’ rooms only. She had also brought her own N95 mask, which she wanted to wear outside patients’ rooms, but was informed she could not do so. This prompted her to quit in tears, seemingly in fear for her safety. CBS News added: “The hospital, Northwestern Medicine, acknowledged that Imaris Vera had quit her job, but referred CBS News to Vera as to the details of why.”

CBS News was journalistically obligated to post the clarification, because their initial tweet of the video clearly gave the misleading impression that nurses in the COVID-19 ICU were being required to work with no PPE at all. Right-wing commenters were quick to pounce: accusing CBS of promoting fake news, and making much of the fact that Imaris Vera had used Instagram pretty much the same way as anyone else who uses it, i.e. to post selfies and videos for attention. CBS clearly did not sufficiently investigate the original video before giving it wider distribution, and they are fair game for criticism as a result.

But what about Imaris herself? What led to her recording and posting the video, which she may have expected to be seen only by friends and family? The National Review report references another social media post from late March, in which Imaris acknowledged that she “suffer[s] with anxiety and bi-polar depression and was feeling a heavy toll with transitioning back into the ICU after being away from the bedside for over a year”. She additionally posted on April 1 that “I am currently looking for other COVID Nursing jobs where I know I’ll feel SAFE & not be told I can’t wear my own mask/PPE”. The magazine — founded by the late William F. Buckley — took care to point out that this means she quit her job almost immediately, after being out of work for a year. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to sense a whiff of judgement on their part, but sense it I do, for what that’s worth. In general, sympathy on the political right for Imaris Vera as an individual was lacking, to say the least.

As someone having my own history with anxiety, up to and including quitting a much-valued job because of it after just four months (with — let me emphasize this — no other means of support), I want to stand up for Imaris. No words can do justice to the reality of a panic attack. When I had my first one, in my mid-twenties, I sincerely and uncritically believed I was dying. Lacking any framework for what I was experiencing, I took my panic symptoms for physical reality, and believed in the marrow of my bones I was experiencing my last moments on earth. The horror was beyond all description. While I (obviously) survived, other attacks followed, little more tolerable though they trailed off with time.

Years later, with my anxiety still not effectively treated, the stress of adjusting to the excessive demands of a new and highly dysfunctional workplace subjected me to a grinding, unending struggle to function, while a monster haunted my spirit and gnawed at my insides 24 hours a day. This culminated in another panic attack, though this time I had enough experience to recognize it for what it was and seek reasonable medical attention. For several days afterward, I struggled with the sheer impossibility of trying to go back to work, knowing it was beyond me but paralyzed by my expectation of myself that I had to try. Somehow, through some breakthrough denial of reality, I did manage to go back in for another few days before the final, simple event that broke me. (We had an in-office training event that took me away from my desk for a couple of hours. When I came back, my voice mail box was filled with unanswered demands.) I went to the washroom, shut myself in a stall, wept quietly for a moment and then walked to my manager’s office to inform her that I was done.

When all these events happened, I was not being physically threatened — not at all, not once, by anyone or anything. My life and health weren’t in genuine danger from my being expected to work in close proximity to a contagious killer disease. Nor was I under constant assault by apocalyptic news reports letting me know that not just my country, but the entire world, was buckling under the viral threat. Imaris Vera, however, was. In this environment, she wanted to put her skills to use and help people, while also wanting to protect herself. Being disallowed from doing so to the degree she wanted, she broke under the strain and she was done. She therefore found herself in the position of having to let go of elusive, hard-won stability, and throw herself back into the maelstrom of economic precarity and a completely uncertain future, as the only alternative to the destruction of her physical health, her mental health, or both. Try to picture what it would take to drive you to that choice.

I have been Imaris Vera, and I can’t even imagine the worst experiences of my life being compounded by a massive social media pile-on. Take it easy on Imaris. She’s been through a lot. Take it from one who knows: anxiety is no joke.

 

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