I am sitting with my patient in his room on Facetime with his family. He is COVID positive and has suffered irreparable heart damage as a result of the virus. He has been provided comfort measures only and will most likely die before the end of my shift. It is only 9:30 a.m. and already two of my patients on my assignment have passed away from COVID, and another one will get intubated by noon.
I am behind on passing out my meds and my phone is ringing off the hook, but my focus at the moment is on trying to reach the family of my dying patient. I am holding his hand while his young children are crying on the phone saying goodbye to him. My heart is absolutely shattered listening to the conversation.
I am a nurse working on a COVID unit, and one of the many healthcare workers who share similar horror stories of what it was like to endure constant, repeated tragedies during a widespread pandemic. I watched many of my coworkers fall ill to COVID over those next few months wondering when I was going to be next. I worried constantly over whether I was going to inadvertently bring this virus home to my family and what would happen if we all got sick.
Health care workers see and care for patients during the worst moments of their lives, but many of us caring for COVID patients have seen more death in the last six months than we have in our entire career. This chronic response to these types of health care conditions, also known as “burnout” could lead to severe mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide, and yet our support for therapeutic services is gravely lacking.
In an acute event such as Sandy Hook school shootings, the CT Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services initiated a crisis team to provide services to the victims, families, front line workers, health care workers and anyone directly affected by the tragic events of that day.
I was one of those healthcare workers in the trauma room at Danbury Hospital the morning of the mass shooting. It was the single worst day of my entire career. The hospital mandated that all of the staff that were involved with the children brought in that day seek counseling before we could leave the hospital. We were then offered extensive counseling by the hospital and encouraged to attend thereafter, which many of us did.
With an acute event such as Sandy Hook, one would expect mental health services to be on the forefront of caring for all the healthcare workers involved. Studies have shown however, that the long term effects of chronic trauma such as the healthcare workers who have faced months of disparity during a pandemic such as COVID-19 has had a greater long lasting impact on overall mental health.
Although we may not know the lasting impacts of mental health on our healthcare workers for years to come, studies in China have shown a 50.4% increase in health care workers reporting anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Those same mental health services that are offered during an acute event such as Sandy Hook should also be offered and encouraged among healthcare workers facing this pandemic. This is a public health crisis that needs to be addressed sooner than later.
There are some preventative strategies that organizations can implement to reduce the workload and stress among their healthcare employees in the hopes of reducing the burnout rates among those caring for COVID-19 patients. The leaders of these organizations should be reaching out directly to their staff daily to discuss any concerns with equipment, PPE, staffing and promptly address those issues.
They can also set up behavioral health teams to offer free telehealth sessions to staff and their families. In addition, setting up a buddy system where coworkers can look out for one another and recognize signs of burnout so they can be given extra support.
Even simple gestures such as offering meals to these healthcare workers goes a long way in helping reduce their stress during a long shift. Some organizations have started to implement these preventative strategies, but it needs to become widespread. We must support and take care of our healthcare workers because someday they may be taking care of you.
Krystal Swift is a registered nurse and third year APRN student at the University of Connecticut.