Why healthcare workers are at their breaking point

Healthcare workers at their breaking point.

Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

In December 2020, I wrote an article on psychology today to receive my first COVID-19 vaccine while working on the front lines of the pandemic. I was hopeful that vaccination would be the beginning of the end. I could overcome the little shiver of dread that gripped my heart every time I crossed the threshold of a patient’s room. I could devote more attention to caring for my patients and their family members. Eventually, I thought everything would be back to normal.

Of course, that never happened. My hope slowly faded as the pandemic became more polarized and soaring vitriol and viral variants seemed to guarantee that there would be no end in sight. I watched in disgust as a politician compared mask mandates to the Holocaust. I shook my head as anonymous internet commentators ridiculed unvaccinated people who died of the disease. Yet I have been heartened by the selflessness, bravery and ingenuity of my colleagues in health care and science.

I have since changed hospitals and finally entered the specialty I have aspired to since medical school, but cannot escape the specter of the pandemic. Last month, the intensive care unit at the hospital asked our team to assess a patient younger than me. His body had taken the full brunt of the virus which, without the moderating effects of the vaccine, had ravaged his lungs. I never got a chance to talk to him in person, as he was already intubated when I joined his treatment team.

As I examined the patient’s body, swollen with intravenous fluids, I listened to the playlist of his favorite songs in the background. At that point, I realized that he would probably never appreciate the sound of music again or inspire on his own volition again.

I called the main team. I said, “You know what I’m suggesting probably won’t help you?”

They replied: “We know, but he’s so young and he has children. If there’s any chance it will help, we want to do everything we can.”

The patient died two weeks later.

Since then, the situation in our hospital has become more serious than ever. In Chicago, the percentage of critical care beds available has fallen even lower than the worst of the fall 2020 surge. Additionally, as we enter the third year of the pandemic, healthcare workers find themselves at their lowest mental and emotional level.

Although milder than Delta, Omicron recently tore the public and healthcare personnel apart. The Centers for Disease Health and Prevention responded by reducing the recommended time for isolation from ten days to five, ostensibly to deal with inevitable staffing shortages. Yet it puts the well-being of healthcare workers – and by extension, our patients – at risk, as staff members who are asymptomatic but continue to shed the virus can transmit the disease to their colleagues and to their patients. Additionally, across the country, hospital workers are also facing a growing number of physical and verbal abuse from patients, all for trying to do their jobs in an increasingly stressful environment.

All stress, abuse and death at work have their consequences. Research may lag real-time events, but a January 2022 cross-sectional survey published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine took the pulse of the mental well-being of healthcare workers in the spring of 2020, after the first surge. Fourteen percent reported depression, 43% higher anxiety, 32% sleep disturbances, 22% post-traumatic stress symptoms, and 46% emotional exhaustion. While it’s hard to extrapolate this data to the fourth (or, depending on how you count, the fifth) flare-up, suffice it to say that healthcare workers aren’t doing well.

Although I have been disappointed by politicians, experts, some members of the public and trusted institutions, I remain impressed by the resilience of our doctors, nurses, medical assistants, technicians, therapists, social workers and respiratory therapists, among others . . But I also know that we have collectively crossed far beyond our breaking point, and I worry about the impact of the pandemic on our current and future generations of health care providers.

Since we are still in the throes of COVID-19, I won’t even begin to guess what might happen in the future, especially since the virus has defied most predictions. Yet I must continue to cling to the hope that this too will pass. It must ; if not, who will cure the healers?

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