So, what is it like working as a health care professional during the pandemic, mainly as a nurse?
Nurses are very specialized and work in many areas of healthcare. However, during the pandemic, many nurses were deployed from their specialized areas (i.e. operating room, recovery, ambulatory settings offices, managerial positions etc.) to the frontline and active bedside nursing. From student nurses and new graduates to seasoned experienced and retired nurses, we all had to pull our weights. It felt like what the military must go through when something bad happens. Everyone just had to step up to help.
During that time, many of us did not nurse COVID-positive patients or work in the ICU. Many other patients needed to be cared for and their families needed support. All elective surgical procedures and diagnostic tests were cancelled.
I spoke to a few nurses from various areas of nursing around the GTA, other provinces, and in the USA. They shared their experiences and challenges with me. The main themes from those discussions were that many of them were experiencing feelings of fear and anxiety, feelings of helplessness, frustration with communication, feelings of disconnection, moral distress, compassion fatigue, burnout, and a sense of loss of the nursing profession.
Here are some quotes from those conversations:
- “I feel so helpless.”
- “I went through extreme anxiety and fear of being exposed to the virus and carrying it home to my family.”
- “My stress and frustration were due to lack of information on one hand and miscommunication about pandemic guidelines between hospital leaders, public health officials, government, and themselves.”
- “I resented having to check multiple locations for information and having to sometimes hear about new guidelines from the public before receiving it from our own organizational leadership.”
- “It was also frustrating because policies would literally change by the day.”
Many expressed the following themes:
- “Sign fatigue”, information overload, and frustration about misinformation being spread on social media.
- Feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work and family life, which left many feeling emotionally drained, disconnected, and overworked.
- An increase in workload due to the increased need for PPE, understaffed conditions, and having to support patients because their families could not be with them.
- The lack of human connection and watching patients die with strangers. Quote: “The absolute worst part is watching these patients dying without their loved ones by their side, no one to touch them, no one that loves them around; their families cannot come to see them. The staff is dressed from head to toe, there’s no skin-to-skin contact, there’s nothing. Please know that they were not alone. We held their hands; we wiped their tears as we wiped our own and we prayed for them, as well as for you. These are our parents, grandparents, sons, daughters, neighbours, and friends. Nurses were still teary talking about this.”
- Nurses described the isolation they felt, including one nurse who said, “The only people I’ve touched in months are patients.” Especially nurses in ICU had to isolate themselves from their families, spouses, children, and loved ones, particularly during the first wave. Another nurse said, “We would go home to shower not only because we didn’t want to risk exposing loved ones, but to attempt to wash off the trauma we were experiencing and also to wash away the guilt of wondering if we could do more.”
- This point is not a particular attack on those who believe differently, but one of the issues that came up when I spoke to my colleagues. There was frustration with virus deniers, hoaxers, and anti-vaxxers. One nurse said, “I feel as though I’m putting out fires while others pour gasoline on it when I care for COVID patients, while the public protests basic mask mandates.”
- There were physical and psychological challenges faced in the workplace during the pandemic. One nurse describes the workplace as a “battlefield”, where there was the emotional labour of caring for patients who aren’t allowed to see family or visitors. One nurse said, “A period of intense grieving for our colleagues in ICUs, especially for those who not only watch their patients taking their last breaths, but also for their colleagues who they work with, their managers, and their families. This caused moral distress and compassion fatigue. I have a deep appreciation for my colleagues and teams.”
Here are some more quotes from those conversations:
- “It was stressful at the beginning because we didn’t know much about COVID and then even more stressful later on when kids started getting sick and only one parent could accompany them to the hospital. It really tore at the heart. Not only were children getting COVID, but children’s other illnesses were exacerbated. Parents were not seeking medical care timely for these children due to fear of getting COVID.”
- “Many of us were fearful that we would bring COVID home to our families. Although there was so much unknown, I felt fortunate to be able to come to work at SickKids and help where I could.”
- “The unknown was frightening, but the urgency the pandemic placed on healthcare workers all over the world didn’t allow us to sit in that fear or uncertainty for too long. Our patients needed us, their families were trusting us, and we were called to act, adapt, and help save as many of those precious lives we cared for as possible. I look back to that time with great pride. Pride in the devoted care we provided for each person in those hospital beds.”
In 2020, nurses silenced fear, rose to the challenge, persevered, and embodied the “Year of the Nurse.”
How did the nurses cope with their mental and physical stressors during this time?
There were many ways nurses tried to cope with the stress during that time: The main themes in coping strategies were prayer, relying on one’s faith, finding distractions, engaging in outdoor activities, finding other support, receiving the support of family and loved ones, and receiving the support and love of pets.
- Spiritual connection. Many develop a deeper spiritual connection with God, themselves, and others.
- One nurse said, “My colleagues and I pray a lot together. God is in control, and we are His hands and feet right now. It has made me rely on God because He is in control.”
- One ICU nurse said “I cannot explain it, but adrenaline kicked in and I was not thinking about myself. I was scared, dehydrated, my skin was breaking out, and marks and grooves all over my face. I was like a machine. I worked 6 x12 shift days a week. I did not interact with the family, even though we lived in the same house. I would often pray for my patients. I lied to my family a lot. I could not tell them about my days at work. I had to spare them the pain and distress of my days in the hospital.”
- Another nurse said, “What was the most important thing was prayer. Every day before leaving home I would go before my prayer altar and ask for God’s protection and guidance, not only for me and my family but for my specific unit and all the other front-line workers. At night when I returned home, I approached the prayer altar and thanked God for his protection.”
“Knowing that the prayer team had our backs was reassuring and gave me a level of confidence and peace which cause all my fears to be nonexistent.”
- Hobbies and outdoor activities. Others said, “I have Bible class and prayer meetings. I cycle, swim, and eat well. I also paint.” Some took up gardening. “It gets me outdoor in the fresh air. It actually helped my anxiety level and it makes me happy.”
- Distraction and relying on loved ones. Not every nurse has a religious belief.
- One nurse said, “For me, distraction was the biggest help. When I was home I didn’t like to watch the news because I feel like I’m living the news. When I did watch TV, I preferred shows that were happy or funny. I also would do things that brought me joy, such as spending time with my dog and husband. A big thing for me was shopping. I did a TON of online shopping.”
- “To cope, we relied on our co-workers. We cried together, supported each other, and just rallied together and found strength in one another because we shared that unique bond. The people I work with are truly incredible. We really couldn’t do what we do, or what we have done, without each other.”
How did I cope during the pandemic?
Besides my mainstay, which is prayer, I listened to music while travelling to work. Yes, I’m old-fashioned! Every day, I listened to the CD “ Just One Prayer” by Clarence Joseph Scott and specifically the songs “Miracle in the Middle of Your Pain” or “Nothing Goes Unnoticed by God.” From the parking lot to the hospital I listened to “We thank Thee” by Jim Reeves, then say a quick prayer and enter the hospital to start the day.
Nurses are generally humble and caring even through threatening and challenging times. So Nurses, trust God with all your heart and seek His guidance in all you do because God delights in helping His people as they help others. We thank Him for coming to our aid so many times and helping us to face the many battles.
By Bev Griffiths