Healthcare workers struggle with stress, uncertainty of COVID-19

At hospitals across Metro Atlanta, Emory psychologist Dr. Nadine Kaslow and her team are spending a lot of time walking the halls, visiting ICUs, and talking to frontline healthcare workers.

"We're saying, 'How are you doing, how are you honestly doing," Kaslow says.

The answer, for some, is not well.

"We're hearing tremendous sadness on the part of the people working in the ICU, with how sick patients are, how very, very sick patients are, and how they're dying alone," Kaslow says.

Because COVID-19 is highly infectious, hospitals are not allowing visitors, which means family members cannot be by a dying loved one’s beside like they normally would.

So, frontline providers are using FaceTime, Zoom and phone calls to connect with their families.

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In many ways, Kaslow says, healthcare workers are being pushed into the role of surrogate family members for their patients.

At the same time, she says, they are worried about their own safety, and are feeling guilty they cannot spend more time with their patients.

Emory St. Joseph's hospitalist Dr. Dhaval Desai says he and his staff have trained for years in how to handle medical crises, but there is no playbook for a pandemic.

"Everything has changed for us," Desai says.  "We were operating a regular way, that we were accustomed to.  All of a sudden, it felt like overnight, we're completely reacting to and responding to all the changes associated with COVID."

Now, Dr. Desai says, they are being forced to react quickly, in real-time, to a virus that feels both random and unpredictable.

"The other part of this is the unknown," he says.  "The unknown is very stressful.  And the unknown is not only what this disease can do, or the fact this disease can be any one of us, but how long we may ultimately be in this position.  That is what continues to be our biggest stressors through this."

Kaslow and her team are trying to reach out to frontline employees, to help them cope with what they are experiencing.

They are focused not just on physicians and nurses, but respiratory therapists, clerks, and environmental services employees, Kaslow says, are seeing COVID-19 “up close and personal."

Her team is using Zoom to organize wellness groups and provide one-on-one counseling.

Emory has also organized a support group for employees who have contracted COVID-19.

Much of what they are doing, Kaslow says, is listening.

"We're hearing about what's going well, but also trying to provide a safe space for them to talk about what's challenging, what's stressful, what's sad and painful, what makes them mad, what scares them," Dr. Kaslow says.

At Emory St. Joseph's Hospital, Dr. Desai says he and his team have started holding weekly "wellness" meetings, to check in with each other and talk about the challenges they are facing both in and outside the hospital.

"We had our first session last week, and I cannot tell you how therapeutic it was for all of us to sit and talk about that," Dr. Desai says. "I think we're all facing some of the same challenges that, we went to protect ourselves, we want to go home but still protect our family members."

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One team member, who took a few days off, told Desai he was two or three days into his break before the reality of what they are dealing with hit him.

On their 12-hours shifts, he says, they rarely have time to slow down

"You're in that stressed state, taking care of things, and doing what needs to be done because that's what our job is, and what we're trained on," Dr. Desai says.  " But, you really don't have that moment to process and take a step back and think, 'Oh, my goodness, this what we're dealing with right now.'"