Who is looking after the health of first respondents?
While living through the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone, the stress suffered by health care workers, as they worked long hours and held responsibility for lives of others, has been immense.
“There was a time in June 2020 where I slept on a couch in the hospital for eight days because I had so many critical patients, that time was particularly hard because my wife had just given birth,” said Tanis Blench, is a junior doctor at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.
Blench says there was a time during the pandemic when all he was doing was working. Because there was so much negativity around him, he was severely depressed. But he did not speak up as he felt it was his duty to take care of others first.
Blench was unable to be with his wife while she was giving birth which affected him deeply. When he finally felt that he might break down he decided to get professional help as he realized that in order for him to stay strong, he had to have a healthy outlet for his thoughts.
Blench’s experience is not unique.
“I lost one of the patients and I think that day I lost all hope for a while, I could not stop crying and was afraid to go to work,” said Brittany Emery. Emery is a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) nurse. The patient she lost was a premature baby. NICU staff had to perform a C-section on the mother due to her severe condition as she had contracted COVID-19.
According to Emery, this was the hardest time of her life. She is usually is a very cheerful person but because she had to face such difficult circumstances at work, she became extremely quiet and depressed.
“My parents were worried about me and so were my co-workers because I was not my usual self for months, I mean that little human suffered for months before he finally gave up. He didn’t even get to start living his life before this pandemic took it away from him,” said Emery.
The impact on health care workers just entering the field during the pandemic was particularly severe.
“I was fairly new and I hadn’t really had any traumatic experiences at work yet and since COVID hit right after I got this job, I was worked to the bone for three, four months as we had to be extra careful with the patients we had,” said Elizabeth Winans.
Winans is a registered nurse at the AHS and worked at a nursing home at the beginning of the pandemic.
Winans said there were many nights where she would go home and cry while hugging her mother. Because she was physically as well as mentally exhausted, it would be hours before she got to have a proper meal. Even though she was fully committed to her work, it was hard to keep going with a positive attitude.
As Nirandhi Gowthaman reported at the beginning of the pandemic in Herstory, many health care workers volunteered to come out of retirement to help deal with the rise in the number of cases. Medical professionals, rom doctors and nurses through administrative staff, have been putting in long hours and consecutive shifts to help COVID-19 patients.
“Most of the patients I take care of are either physically disabled or have a serious ailment that needs to be taken care of really closely,” said Razan Hegi, who works at a nursing home and is training to be a nurse. “Five of our nurses quit last year in August and the ones remaining including myself had to pull double shifts,”
When Hegi was asked to put in double shifts, she was three months pregnant and was not feeling very well. Because of financial as well as academic reasons, she could not take a break from work.
“I was in so much pain looking at the patients who could not get their outings because of COVID and strict restrictions. While I knew it was essential to keep them safe, it broke my heart and I think it affected me more than I realised,” said Hegi.
As vaccination programs progress and the world moves out of the pandemic, health care workers may soon get some respite. In the meantime, there is help. As the Canadian Association of Mental Health reports, Canada’s Ministry of Health has partnered with five hospitals to make sure that the frontline health care workers get the help, they might need to cope with this difficult time mentally.