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December 2, 2020

'The last 8 months almost broke me': What the coronavirus epidemic has meant for frontline workers

Daily Briefing

    As the Covid-19 epidemic hits new peaks in the United States, the New York Times interviewed dozens of health care providers who detailed the stress they've encountered working amid the epidemic, and the toll it has taken on their lives.

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    'The last 8 months almost broke me'

    Surveys have found that rates of depression, trauma, and burnout have been rising since the start of the epidemic among health care providers—a group that even before the epidemic reported higher-than-average rates of suicide, the Times reports.

    "We're sacrificing so much as health care providers—our health, our family's health," Cleavon Gilman, an emergency medicine physician in Arizona, said. "You would think that the country would have learned its lesson" after the spring, he continued, "But I feel like the 20,000 people [who] died in New York died for nothing."

    Separately, Shannon Tapia, a geriatrician in Colorado, said while April and May were bad for her—with 22 residents dying in a 10-day time period at one facility she staffed—what's happening now in her state "is much, much worse." She said, "Covid is going crazy in Colorado right now."

    "Systematically, it makes me feel like I'm failing," Tapia said. "The last eight months almost broke me." Tapia even considered leaving medicine altogether, but as a single parent, "I need my M.D. to support my kid," she said.

    Tapia added that while she has started taking an antidepressant, which has helped manage her feelings of helplessness and anxiety, she's concerned about the effect it will have on her future employment. As the Times notes, many state medical boards still ask about mental health history and treatment when applicants seek a license renewal.

    Other health care providers have expressed similar feelings of helplessness, the Times reports. "I haven't even thought about how I am today," Susannah Hills, a pediatric head and neck surgeon at Columbia University, said. "I can't think of the last time somebody asked me that question."

    And Gilman, who first treated Covid-19 patients as a resident at New York-Presbyterian in the spring, said his experiences left him "just down and depressed and exhausted." He said, "I would come home with tears in my eyes, and just pass out."

    Shikha Dass, an ED nurse at Mount Sinai Queens, experienced similar chaos in mid-March when she and her team of eight nurses had to handle around 15 patients each—double or triple their usual workload. "We kept getting code after code, and patients were just dying," Dass said.

    As a result, Dass said she dealt with irritability and sleeplessness, often seeing visions of dead patients on cots in the ED during the night. One morning on her drive home, she broke down crying.

    Health care providers are also tiring of being considered "heroes," feeling weighed down by the patients they couldn't save, the Times reports. "I'm not trying to be a hero. I don't want to be a hero," Gilman said, noting that being a frontline worker doesn't make him stronger or safer than anyone else. "I want to be alive."

    Looking forward

    As cases and deaths from Covid-19 continue to rise across the country, health care providers are preparing for a potentially bleak future and growing frustrated with how the country is responding to the virus, the Times reports.

    For instance, Jina Saltzman, a physician assistant in Chicago, said she was amazed to see masses of unmasked people in a restaurant where she picked up pizza. "It's so disheartening. We're coming here to work every day to keep the public safe," she said. "But the public isn't trying to keep the public safe."

    And Jill Naiberk, a nurse at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is in her ninth-straight month of caring for Covid-19 patients. "My unit is 16 beds. Rarely do we have an open one," she said. "And when we do have an open bed, it's usually because somebody has passed away."

    Naiberk said she sometimes cries on her way home, where she lives alone, a few houses down from her 79-year-old mother. But she's holding on for the future, she said. "I keep telling everybody the minute I can safely hug you again, get ready," she said. "Because I'm never letting go" (Wu, New York Times, 11/25).

    Tomorrow: How workforce leaders can boost organizational resilience


    After a tumultuous year, our health care workforce is battered and exhausted. As providers enter pandemic ‘marathon mode,’ sustaining workforce wellbeing and resilience is a non-negotiable priority for all HR and workforce leaders.

    Join the webinar tomorrow, Dec. 3, at 1 p.m. EST to learn the steps to take today to boost workforce resilience across the mid-to-long term.

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