Healing the Healers: How Healthcare Workers Find Peace Amidst COVID Surge

Photo by SJ Objio on Unsplash

Chaos surrounded Anastasia Young the first week of December as she walked into the cardiology unit at Southdale Hospital in Minnesota. Two COVID-19 patients required emergency care at the same time. As Young looked on, rapid response teams of doctors and nurses rushed into the prep roomreaching for soaps, masks, scrubs, shields, and sanitizers to prepare to care for the patients. 

The cardiology unit wasn’t supposed to house COVID-19 patientsIt was relatively calm for most of the pandemic until the third wave hit this fall and ICU beds reached their full capacityPeople suffering from the virus had to be moved into the cardiology unit alongside other patients “There are too many sick people. It’s a helpless feeling to realize you can’t provide the best possible care to everyone,” says Young, a doctoral student in the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at the University of Minnesota  

As the number of deaths from COVID-19 passes 300,000 and more hospitals find themselves at overcapacity, Ms. Young has witnessed a dramatic rise in anxiety and feelings of helplessness experienced by the doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital. It is a trend that is afflicting healthcare workers across the nation. According to The Physicians Foundation 2020 Physician Survey, over 1 in 4 (22%) physicians know a physician who committed suicide, a majority (58) express feelings of burnoutand 50 percent of physicians have experienced inappropriate anger, tearfulness, or anxiety as a result of COVID-19's effects on their practice 

Young, who trains a cohort of undergraduate nursing students at the hospital, has found herself using her undergraduate studies in both nursing and religion, to assume an unofficial role helping to heal the healers in this crisis moment. Sometimes what her fellow healthcare workers need most is someone to talk to: “Deep listening is the first step,” explains Young.  

Some of the stress experienced is connected to the cavalier attitude of patients who are still in denial about the pandemic. Young recalls sitting in the prep room when a doctor stormed out of a patient’s room close to tears. As she took off her PPE, she said, “I need to talk to someone. I need to let it out. Can I talk to you?” Young hadn’t met her before, but she nodded.  

The doctor shared that for the first time in the pandemic, she had lost her temper with a patient. He had been receiving COVID-19 treatment for a month, and yet, he refused to believe the pandemic is real, accusing the doctor and nurses of trying to make more money off him.  

“Everyone reaches a breaking point, but healthcare workers, they’ve to keep going, they’ve to stay ‘on’ the whole time. I feel happy that I can be someone they can turn to even if for a few moments,” says Young.  

The national non-profit, Healing Circles, is also seeing greater participation from health care workers who need space to tell their storiesLindsay Espejel, a registered nurse in Houston, Texas, trains nursing schools, hospitals, and other healthcare organizations to bring the practice of healing circles to frontline medical workers during the pandemic. She also hosts virtual and in-person healing circles for healthcare workers to gather and heal through stories of shared trauma. 

“Storytelling can be a powerful tool for healing,” says Espejel“It's a way of coming together without prescribing to any particular spiritual faith, or doctrine. Nurses and doctors often bring a peaceful healing presence to their patients, the hope is that healing circles can do the same for them. 

Espejel begins her virtual circles by asking everyone to take three deep breaths. 

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.  

She then rings a little brass bell, lights a candle, and reads aloud a poem -- ‘When Someone Deeply Listens to You’ by John Fox. 

“When someone deeply listens to you 
it is like holding out a dented cup 
you've had since childhood 
and watching it fill up with 
cold, fresh, water...” 

Not surprisingly, the stories that Espejel most often hears deal with life and death, grief and loss, and the struggle to sustain one’s own self emotionally, physically, while taking care of othersOne of the stories that stayed with Espejel came from a nurse who had successfully nurtured a patient to good health from COVID-19. After several calls to the patient’s family went unanswered, the nurse learned that his family members had all succumbed to the virus while he was in the hospital. Espejel recalls the nurse being in visible pain as she shared her story. 

“Healing circles are the way to ameliorate moral distress. They share these stories to the fire so there’s this sense of burning your trauma and starting anew the next day,” says Espejel 

Bharat Sanders in Georgia brings his love for music to cope with the trauma he and his colleagues are witnessing in this moment. Sanders is a third-year Doctor of Medicine (MD) student at The Southwest Clinical Campus of the Medical College of Georgia, based in a rural town of Albany, Georgia. The region was one of the hardest-hit places during the first two waves of the pandemic. During his rounds, Sanders likes to strike up conversations with doctors, nurses, patients, to check on how they’re doing in this moment -- most of them tell him that they’re tired, exhausted, anxious. Sanders recalls a nurse outside an ICU shift telling him, ‘I don’t remember how many body bags I’ve zipped since March.’ 

“I love music in all forms, and it’s a huge part of my spirituality and faith,” says Sanders, who was raised in an interfaith family – his mom, a Hindu, and his dad, a Southern Baptist. Spiritually, Sanders follows the teachings of Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian guru and philanthropist, whose followers engage in community-centric devotional singing to use music to connect with God and their inner-self.  

Earlier in April, Sanders and some of his colleagues performed ‘Songs of Comfort’ as a part of their student organization, Music in Medicine at Medical College of Georgia, to offer solace to frontline healthcare workers and other hospital staff.  “It’s our way of telling our patients, our healthcare workers, that we are all interconnected no matter where we are,” says Sanders. “We hope that our music calls to your soul, and helps you heal.” 

When asked about the vaccine being released this week, Sanders was cautiously optimistic. “Folks in the hospital seem more hopeful that we’re approaching the end of this pandemic,” says Sanders. “It will be interesting to see things play out because there are likely hidden challenges which only time will reveal. I pray the hope is warranted and America starts to heal.”  


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