Memorial Day has traditionally been a time to celebrate America’s military veterans. However, in 2020 — the Year of the Nurse, as dubbed by the World Health Organization (WHO) — it seems equally appropriate to honor and give thanks to the hundreds of thousands of healthcare providers putting their safety at risk to care for patients infected with COVID-19.
To continue to meet this challenge, these nurses and clinicians need the continued support of their supervisors and facility managers. But that support isn’t always forthcoming, or at least, the workers feel that it isn’t. It’s a difficult situation, but an understandable one, given the barriers that the pandemic is raising against traditional support models.
Yet this Memorial Day, as we move into the third month of the COVID-19 crisis, we want to urge all the facilities in our network — and even those that aren’t — to take a moment to consider the nurses and clinicians working hard to keep folks healthy, and re-consider whether the support they’re receiving is proportional to the risks and dangers they’re so bravely facing.
‘The Days Begin to Blur into One. I Am Exhausted’
Sharing the journal of a New York-based RN “who has not only cared for the sickest COVID-19 patients in the ICU, but also caught the virus,” an account published by Healthcare IT News powerfully illustrates how the evolution of the COVID-19 crisis has affected nurses working on the front lines.
“I do a fly-by of MICU, and the nurses are stressed and fearful, and are learning to live with the personal protective equipment on nearly all the time,” she wrote in mid-March, as the reality of the pandemic was becoming clearer to everyone.
Even as she describes a situation in which testing has become more, with results available in a matter of hours instead of days, she acknowledges that “news is not good,” with most patients showing “symptoms of fever, cough, fatigue, muscle aches and some with diarrhea” testing positive for the new coronavirus.
This feeling of being overwhelmed by the task at hand isn’t going to be new to many nurses and healthcare professionals, who are accustomed to — and even thrive — on delivering care in restricted conditions. But it can also be a driver for nurse burnout, which, unsurprisingly, is soaring during the pandemic months.
“Retrospectively I can’t keep track of where I’ve worked. The days begin to blur into one. I am exhausted. Nurses are doing overtime and are becoming frazzled. I am not sleeping well … I am 57 and I’ve already seen patients in their 40s die of this.
“My church has closed its doors for the past two weeks, so there is no sanctuary or solace to be found there,” she adds. “Tears run down my face every day as I commute back and forth.”
Heeding the Words & Concerns of COVID-19 Nurses & Clinicians
Powerful as this story is, it isn’t unique. The RN’s words reflect the fear and uncertainty being felt by healthcare professionals working in similarly dangerous and stressful situations. Those feelings and concerns are manifesting in a number of ways, including a Memorial Day Weekend protest by nurses in Minnesota over the scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Writing in STAT news, a Massachusetts-based RN describes watching an experienced ICU nurse break down in tears from the stress of working long, unorthodox shifts.
“Doctors have been instructed not to enter patients’ rooms unless they must as a way to minimize their exposure to the virus that causes Covid-19 while nurses go from one room to the next, medicating, bathing, turning, and comforting their patients without changing their uncomfortable personal protective equipment, since supplies are limited,” she explains.
“Most shifts start with nurses crying. Most shifts end that way too,” she writes. “Many of us don’t have a choice. We are assigned to work in unfamiliar units, with patients who are outside our expertise, without any training. We’re lost.”
“I’ve been impressed with the number of complaints of increased and new symptoms of anxiety related to COVID-19,” says a Virginia-based LPN in another Healthcare IT News story. “I find that it has affected me as well. Although I don’t feel anxious, I find myself performing extra education to all of my patients” to help them stem their risk of infection.
“I can’t sit beside them and hold their hand or pat them on the back,” she adds. “You know, that really depresses me, now that I think about it. So does my anxiety and depression carry over to my patients? to my staff?”
It’s a fair question — and an important one for healthcare facilities to consider.
And it doesn’t come with an easy answer. For now, it may be enough to simply heed the words of the nurses and providers working in our facilities, and offer whatever compassion and support we can. Yet it’s also important to offer real compassion to these hard-working professionals, rather than just repeating the same words of thanks.
“The praise and applause from hospital leadership only go so far,” writes the Massachusetts RN. “‘We hear your concerns, but there’s nothing we can do,’ doesn’t reassure or encourage us.”
As we move further away from the Nurses Week and Hospital Week events of mid-May, when many Americans paused to give thanks to workers on the COVID-19 front lines, it’s even more important to offer support to these workers whenever possible. And if words are all you can spare, make the effort to make those words as meaningful, sincere and helpful as possible.