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'There are some faces I will never forget': Healthcare workers describe pandemic's mental toll

hospital mental health
Posted at 7:23 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 19:36:06-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Mentally and emotionally, the pandemic has taken a toll on frontline staff in Indianapolis' COVID-19 ICU units.

As the war against the virus continues, local healthcare workers agree the importance of mental health only deepens.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’m talking and the tears appear in my eyes,” Monica Hammerly said.

She is a Resource Department nurse with IU Health and works in a COVID-19 ICU.

The nurse of 25 years said it is the support and strength among family and co-workers that gets her through the tough days.

“My husband said a while back, he said 'You do have PTSD' and I agree," Hammerly said. "We all are sharing this burden of seeing people die."

On a Zoom interview, Hammerly recalled the first COVID-19 ICU patient on March 23. It is a face she still remembers, alongside so many others she has seen throughout her time in the COVID-19 ICU.

A self-proclaimed optimist, she said she has hope as the vaccine rollout continues and numbers continue to decline. Even with hope, though, she said she and others have sought professional mental health help during this time.

“I have no doubt there are some faces I will never forget, so I know that this is going to be a part of us,” Hammerly said.

There are similar feelings among physicians and healthcare providers at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.

“It’s been a tough year, a very, very tough year,” Dr. Imad Shawa, the Director of Critical Care at Franciscan Health Indianapolis, said. Every day, he works in the COVID-19 ICU.

Stress, anxiety, and fear are only three of the countless emotions Shawa said he sees and feels among his COVID-19 ICU staff. He said the roller-coaster of emotions stem from “the mental anguish” of seeing friends and colleagues fighting for their lives to the worry of bringing the virus home.

“We had many of our providers going home and saying I really do not want to come back," Shawa said. "We’ve had quite a few of our nursing staff quitting saying 'I cannot do this.'"

A recent study published in a UK peer-review journal found data to support how these two frontline workers are feeling.

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes some of our providers crying in the ICU,” Shawa said.

Symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and drinking problems were some of the issues reported. The study also found “around 1 in 7 faced self-harm thoughts."

“I think that we are at a crisis and tipping point with supporting our healthcare providers with a mental health standpoint,” Dr. Jennifer Hartwell with IU Health said. The surgeon also serves as the Chief Wellness Officer for IU Health Physicians.

She said surveys done within the hospitals a few months prior helped create targeted interventions for staff. Hartwell said local data shows“40-60% of IU providers” experience distress or anxiety from their jobs and upwards of 80% reported “safety concerns” for themselves or their families.

Hartwell encourages all staff to seek help either internally or externally. Among several programs offered to employees, Hartwell said she is looking forward to a pilot program rollout next week.

It will be there that workers, she said, will be able to speak with therapists for free as they will be embedded within teams.

“It’s certainly taxing on their reserves more than I think ever before, moral distress, compassion fatigue, burnout,” Erica Green with Franciscan Health said.

She manages the Internal Employee Assistance Program and also encourages any and all staff to seek out help if needed.

She said the hospital has several programs including virtual help and therapists rounding with units to provide support. Green added Franciscan offers several counseling sessions for both employees and their families.

Franciscan Health also has a voluntary team of employees trained in critical incidents and stress management called the ‘Phoenix Team.’ She said it is often group-based and “has been heavily utilized recently.”

Another resource is the Spiritual Care Team.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency crisis and needs immediate help, call 911.

You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You connect with the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

You can call 211 for help 24/7 in Indiana.

Click here for more mental health resources from WRTV's The Rebound: Indiana initiative.