COVID-19 essential workers fighting on the frontline
For front-line health care workers, the pandemic has brought many untold stories.
“There was a bus driver who came in with COVID,” said Rachel Burton, a physician and hospitalist at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. “He was unvaccinated, but a healthy guy under the age of 50. He was scared of the vaccine for various reasons. He stayed home as he proceeded to get sicker and sicker.”
Puzzling patient behavior only adds to care-givers’ stress.
“He told me he planned to die at home,” Burton continued. “He was placed on oxygen but was doing very poorly. He proceeded to decline all the medications we have to offer, and he declined being intubated. For a relatively young and healthy man, this ‘do not resuscitate’ request was unexpected. But ultimately he explained to me that he knew he was going to die, and he wished he’d been left at home to die where he wanted.”
When the Omicron COVID-19 variant hit the United States by storm, hundreds of patients filled the nation’s hospitals. Nurses, physicians and other health professionals had their hands full working around the clock directly responding to this surge.
Often the impact on front-line workers fails to get headlines as statistics and stories from patients with COVID overwhelm the public news. Although cases have begun to drop, these front-line workers are still challenged by the pandemic.
In addition to the large number of critically ill patients in hospitals, less obvious changes in doctors’ and nurses’ daily work created whole new challenges, such as patient visitor restrictions.
“The biggest change is that I spend a lot of time on the phone talking with families since they are frequently not allowed to visit when the number of COVID cases are high,” exclaimed Burton.
Shaneé Herd, an RN at M Health Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CVIC), and assistant coach for the Minnehaha varsity girls volleyball team also agrees that visitor policies have added a burden to her practice.
“COVID brought many more challenges on top of already hard work,” said Herd. “I still am a nurse to one or two patients who usually have either had surgery or are waiting for surgery. However, there are significant differences in visitor restrictions such as only one or two family members are allowed to visit and it continues to change based on COVID numbers.”
With healthcare workers already having their hands full, strong political views, social media posts, and alternative sources of information create additional pressures on healthcare workers.
“I also find work more stressful because there are encounters most days that lead to strong political reactions, whether it be from patients, families, nurses or doctors,” said Herd. “At this point, I don’t have the energy to manage this while also caring for a team of sick patients.”
Herd agrees that this new phenomenon is another distinctive COVID challenge.
“I think social media and extreme views have made working in healthcare hard during the pandemic,” stated Herd. “I know it gets a bad reputation from social media right now but Medicine is a practice, it isn’t perfect, and is constantly changing based on recent evidence. It can be hard to explain that to people who aren’t in the profession and to understand it when you don’t deal with it daily. We are all in this together and everyone wants people to be healthy and be done with COVID.”
Growing stress on healthcare workers affects their mental health in many different ways, and it isn’t uncommon to see workers have second thoughts about staying in their profession. The number of employed nurses around the country have dropped significantly due to the impact of stress on their mental health.
According to Bloomberg.com, “Two-thirds of nurses surveyed by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses said their experiences during the pandemic have prompted them to consider leaving the field. And 21% of those polled in a study for the American Nurses Foundation said they planned to resign within the next six months.”
Herd is not surprised by these statistics.
“There are times where work is very stressful and I do get burnt out,” said Herd. “The increase in stress at the job, lonely times during the end of life for patients and families, and lifestyle changes outside of work have impacted many nurses’ decisions to change jobs. Pediatric intensive care units have historically had high burnout and turnover prior to COVID but I do think COVID and changes the hospitals made during the pandemic have increased the rate. But that’s when I stop picking up shifts and just take time to care for myself.”
In addition to limiting her shifts, Herd also credits an outpouring of support in helping create a more sustainable environment.
“Our doctors, surgeons, families, and managers are trying to make it an enjoyable place to work so fewer nurses leave,” said Herd. “I truly have some amazing coworkers who have made working through the pandemic tolerable. We have done our best to lift each other up during these hard times. We have tried to increase our written kudos to each other and recognize that we are all in this together.”
Similar statistics on burnout are seen amongst doctors and physicians. According to the American Medical Association,
“About 30% of surveyed physicians experienced high stress; 25% of physicians also experienced anxiety with 37.3% having work overload and 47.73% reporting symptoms of burnout.”
Burton has also experienced these significant stressors, but like Herd, has found strength from the support provided by many in her daily work.
“I have remained very committed and happy in my work,” said Burton. “Despite some of the negative interactions, there have been so many people that are incredibly grateful for the work we do. Small acts of appreciation go a long way to providing satisfaction in my job, and those kind words have actually increased since the pandemic hit. I get exhausted and need breaks, and I certainly experience bouts of frustration, anger, and sadness, but at the end of the day, I can’t imagine doing something else.”