In the summer of 1999, I drove my family through the French countryside to a little town called Colleville-sur-Mer, which is situated on a bluff overlooking the English Channel. At the base of the cliff is a beach, but not just any beach: Omaha Beach. Just outside of the town, in what has over seven decades grown into an idyllic visual setting, lie 9,388 white crosses, meticulously aligned in perfect rows—both horizontally and diagonally—each bearing the name of a fallen soldier killed during the battle of Normandy during World War II.
I stood near the edge of the bluff, listening to the wind. The cemetery drew over one million visitors that year, but the grounds are always respectfully quiet. Aside from the occasional squawk of a seagull, the prevailing winds off of the channel are the only background noise. To my right, just down the path, stood an elderly couple quietly talking. The old man gently held his wife’s arm as he pointed to a spot farther down the hillside. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but even if I did, I wouldn’t have understood him as he was speaking German.
My daughter, only 13 at the time but already conversational in several languages, leaned toward me and whispered, “he was here…he was in the war.” She had overheard the man describing events to his wife that had occurred half a century before. The couple then stepped away from the bluff’s edge and made their way past us, continuing up the path. As I turned to follow them, I abruptly stopped. They had paused beside one of the white crosses. The old soldier produced a single red rose from inside his jacket and laid it gently on the cross. Tapping the cold marble with his fingertips, he took his wife’s arm and walked away.
I never fought in a war. I have no frame of reference to understand the profound effect that doing so has on the rest of your life. World wars define generations. As a group, a generation of people are forever changed. A very dear friend of mine—a physician—recently characterized the COVID-19 pandemic as “the war of our lifetimes”. To be clear, he was not comparing the horrors of war or the imminent fear of being killed to the work of front-line health care workers today. His comparison was far more nuanced. He recognized that the global pandemic, and its long-term effect on the generations of people living through it, would be transformational. No one on the front lines of the pandemic will ever be quite the same again. But in addition to the scars, there will be an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment for getting through it together. And for doing what was desperately needed.
Soldiers share a bond that does not extend to those of us who never fought. They aren’t happy for having gone through it but having gone through it in large part defines them. There is a connection between them that the rest of us will never know. That connection is still there 50 years later, marked by a red rose on a white marble cross. The same will be true for medical professionals when the world emerges from this global pandemic.
Before we left France back in 1999, my daughter wrote a poem, inspired by the brief encounter with the elderly couple on the cliff. I never forgot one of her most haunting lines:
“These were not my crosses…this was not my war.”
To the health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, these are your crosses…this is your war.
To those still fighting, thank you.
To those who needed to step away, come back if you can.
We need you now more than ever.
About the author: As executive director of the Vizient Research Institute, Tom Robertson and his team have conducted strategic research on clinical enterprise challenges for more than 25 years. The groundbreaking work at the Vizient Research Institute drives exceptional member value using a systematic, integrated approach. The investigations quickly uncover practical, tested results that lead to measurable improvement in clinical and economic performance.