Everyone is being affected in different ways by the novel coronavirus. As the situation continues to unfold, it appears our society is becoming overwhelmed with the mental and physical risks associated with the outbreak. Many people say they feel lost in how to best cope and protect themselves. In this instance, it could be important to learn from those on the frontlines of this pandemic, like Karen, a healthcare worker.
After only a short drive home from the hospital, Registered Nurse Karen prepares to follow a rigorous protocol to keep her family safe as she just completed a long and tiring twelve-hour shift in the ICU unit treating COVID-19 patients. Her shift consists of physical demands such as lifting patients and moving throughout the unit. When opening the door to her home, instead of greeting her kids with a hug, they stay away as she heads directly to the bathroom where she spends time stripping off her clothes and disinfecting her shoes, badge and any other item that has been in the hospital. Her work clothes go straight to the washer, a washer that has seen more activity these past three months than it has in a year. She notes that the one family-safety measure all health care workers agree on is extreme hygiene, so into the shower she goes. While she feels clean and somewhat rejuvenated after the shower and wearing cleaned and disinfected clothing, she hopes for the best as she then greets her family.
While many Americans self-quarantine and socially isolate to avoid even a chance encounter with someone or something carrying Covid-19, health care professionals like Karen willingly expose themselves to the pandemic every day. While they don’t begrudge the threat to their own health and well-being, many are quite concerned about both the physical and psychological risk to their families and loved ones.
The CDC guidelines are clear about how healthcare workers need to be protected from the coronavirus when treating patients. Unfortunately, there is much less guidance on what to do at home so health care workers have been making tough choices about how and how often it’s safe to work at their hospitals and clinics while going home full of people who might otherwise never be exposed to the disease.
Karen is fortunate to be working at a hospital that takes the need for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers seriously. The nurses, doctors, and technicians in her hospital wear personal protective equipment at all times during their shifts. Along with facemasks, healthcare workers also adorn gloves, gowns, and face shields. The entire hospital is also careful to follow all guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control. Since the beginning of the crisis, the adoption of CDC recommendations has decreased the rate of transmission within their hospital and beyond. These precautions are extremely effective in protecting frontline workers from this highly infectious disease. In fact, there has yet to be a single case of coronavirus among all of the workers on Karen’s unit.
Outside of the hospital, Karen and her coworkers take slightly different but equally valuable precautions to stay physically healthy. They are careful to practice social distancing in their communities. Moreover, they are especially cognizant of their sleep, exercise, and nutrition habits. Health is systemic, and attention to these staples of wellness can promote overall well-being.
The discipline to keep up with these scrupulous routines to keeping physically well and as safe as possible to families takes a mental health toll. According to psychologist Paula Madrid, repeated exposure to risk throughout a workday can deter mental health in a prolonged and detrimental way. For this reason, healthcare workers are particularly at risk for developing disruptive conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Add COVID-19 and experts say that medical professionals are likely to experience fear, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness. One of the largest mental health concerns is called compassion fatigue. Healthcare workers already have stressful jobs. Adding the additional stresses from the COVID-19 pandemic—where there are so many unknowns—is bound to compound the negative effects.
So, how is Karen addressing the mental risk factors? As a healthcare worker, her answer is simple – she is taking the same approach to her mental health as she is her physical health. She is being proactive and preventative about her mental wellness, just as she is with her physiology. She has reached out to peers, friends, and family to talk about the demands of her job every single day. Karen finds solace in the notion that we are all fighting the virus together. By embracing and utilizing these connections, she has forged a powerful network to support her in her frontline work. Connecting with those she loves combats feelings of isolation in the “new normal,” and equips her to deal with future burdens she may face as a healthcare worker. Karen is diligent in paying attention to her body and her mind. Understanding her feelings and experiences also helps her in processing them in a health-conscious way.
Learning from Karen’s knowledge and experiences, it’s clear that in order to stay physically healthy, all members of the community should continue to practice social distancing. Flattening the curve is an ongoing and essential effort. Solace to be found in the idea that we are all working together towards the same goal.
Moreover, following CDC guidelines to the best of our ability can protect the physical health of all communities. If it can keep an intensive care unit safe, it can keep our comminutes safe, too.
Mental wellbeing should be treated just as seriously as physical health during these times. Although we are being faced with extraordinary challenges, simple strategies can be invaluable. It is more important than ever to build connections with loved ones and pay close attention to our mental health. Staying proactive in terms of mental and physical health is an effective avenue to promoting personal well-being during the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, sometime soon, nurses and doctors can come home after a twelve-hour shift and hug their kids without fear. Our healthcare workers, like Karen, have set an exceptional example for how to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe.
Thank you, healthcare workers. Thank you, Mom.