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Coronavirus

Hospital staff working through their own mental toll of the coronavirus pandemic

Resources for frontline workers provides eases mental stress of caring for COVID-19 patients

Dr. Scott DuBois, Dr. Rita Gray, and Dr Joseph Troiani are part of the WCHD Behavioral Health Division’s efforts to battle the mental health challenges of the pandemic.
Dr. Scott DuBois, Dr. Rita Gray, and Dr Joseph Troiani are part of the WCHD Behavioral Health Division’s efforts to battle the mental health challenges of the pandemic.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has not deterred Amanda Serna from pursing her nursing degree.

It's actually intensified her commitment to the profession.

Serna, 24, was two days into her clinicals when the pandemic shut them down temporarily. But that didn't take her out of the risk.

As a transporter at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, Serna takes patients to and from tests and procedures. In March and April, she typically had contact with two COVID-19 patients a day, five days a week.

"When I think about going into a covid room, it is scary. But then I think, 'These patients are alone and probably more scared than you are,'" Serna said. "I felt grateful to take care of these patients and I still do."

In the meantime, Serna developed great admiration for the nurses who patiently cared for very sick and often frightened patients, she said.

"They make sure they feel safe and comfortable," Serna said. "And they do video chats with the families so they're helpful that way, too."

But overcoming that psychological impact for those working closely with patients may be challenging, according to Rita Gray, a nurse and psychologist for the Will County Health Department and one who has experienced this pandemic firsthand

“There are so many complex layers to this," Gray said in a news release from the health department. "You have the physical symptoms, but then the mental challenges of depression and anxiety. When someone asks ‘Should this patient be a DNR?’ [do not resuscitate], you can only imagine what that does to a family.”

Nevertheless, Gray feels society, overall, is overall handling the pandemic well.

"There is a learning curve here, and even the experts are learning as we go," Gray said in the release. "We’ve been required to improvise and realize how quickly things change. And for the medical providers, it has been especially challenging. It is even more of a
challenge for young providers in the behavioral health field. They are dealing with some families that have very complex cases.”

To help ease the stress of workers on the frontline, Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital has a mindful moment calendar that offers staff an activity that allows them to pause and take a break during their shifts.

It can be something as simple as a 3-to-5 minute time-out with other staff to laugh, re-group and refresh.

Kathy Czyzewski, a professional development specialist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, said that the pandemic has been taking a toll on doctors, nurses and other frontline staff members.

She said that Northwestern has “stepped up” its efforts to help employees manage the additional stress from COVID-19. The hospital offers free one-on-one counseling services through its Employee Assistance Program, as well as wellness peer support groups.

“One of the big stressors is seeing people in the hospital and they're alone - their hearts are breaking because the patients can't have family members with them,” she said. “It's hard for them to take time for themselves because I think there ís an internal struggle that they have to be there for their patients. But they have to be in a good place to help their patients.”

Jeff Geiger, manager of behavioral health services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage and Delnor Hospitals, agreed that working with COVID-19 patients is “exhausting” for hospital staff.

“The staff now has to be the emotional support for both patients and families in the absence of visitors, and that ís a new role,” Geiger said. “But one of the themes we're hearing that's carrying our workers is that they feel supported by the hospital, and there is a strong sense of teamwork among the staff.”

But not everyone who comes in contact with patients is feeling stressed.

Joaquin Ruiz, a phlebotomist at Edward Hospital in Naperville, said he tries to encourage his co-workers through leading by example.

"I have no problem going into the room," Ruiz said. ""I'm more nervous about taking it home because I have two kids at home. But am I nervous about me getting it? Not so much."

Ruiz said that's why frequent handwashing, using hand sanitzer and properly wearing facemasks are stressed.

"I think once we started seeing how bad people can get from it, I was nervous a little bit, just because I saw what it can do to healthy people," Ruiz said. "But people are working through it."

Eusebia Chevi Anselmo, who is also a phlebotomist at Edward Hospital, said she was nervous at first, too, especially with "the whole N95 mask situation." But she's not scared anymore, she said.

"We've been doing this for many months now and I haven't gotten sick," Anselmo said.

Anselmo said she even encourages "the girls who bring the trays" when they're anxious about bring meals into the rooms of patients with COVID-19.

"I tell them that it hasn't been bad and they'll get used to it; it becomes part of your norm," Anselmo said. "I'm sure there's still a lot of people nervous because they don't do it that much."

Two longtime operations engineers (31 years each) at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox - Raul Zamudio and Louie Purkart - also have contact with COVID-19 patients, although not in a health care way.

Duties that brought them into the rooms of covid patients can include addressing issues pertaining to the patients' sinks, lighting, beds, outlets or oxygen or vacuum ports (a device that pulls fluid out of the lungs), Zamudio said.

And because both Zamudio and Purkart have other family members that also work at Silver Cross Hospital (three for Zamudio and nine for Purkart), both felt some anxiety about the virus in the early days of the pandemic especially as it related to the possibility of bringing it home to their families, they said.

Although he had worked through H1N1 over a decade ago, Zamudio felt more trepidation with COVID-19.

"It felt more severe," Zamudio said.

But once they were trained on the proper way to use personal protective equipment (PPE), which included "being covered from head to toe," Zamudio said, training seminars and resources for addressing stress, they felt more confident in their ability to safely perform their jobs.

Like Serna, Purkart developed a great respect for the nurses these last few months.

"I'm sure they're hands-on all day," he said. "But the nurses here are very confident."

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