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Frontline workers lean on each other for support as pandemic nears one-year mark

Pandemic nears one year mark in Indiana
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Posted at 8:30 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-20 09:20:00-05

INDIANAPOLIS — COVID-19 is a massive health concern, but the pandemic is also taking a toll on the mental health of many people including the people who put their health on the line every day to take care of others.

"I remember when it first started I was really hesitant about even taking on patients with COVID,” Kevin Kimema, a registered nurse with Franciscan Health Hospital, said, “A lot of anxiety, a lot of unknown in the beginning. Not knowing how to treat these patients how long it would take for them to get better.”

But now, nearly a year into the pandemic, Kimema has treated dozens of COVID-19 patients. Like many healthcare workers, he’s also lost many over the months of battling the virus.

“Just a couple months ago we had a string of patients that were lost in my unit. It’s been kind of rough,” Kimema said.

The registered nurse said one of the most challenging parts of losing patients to this virus is watching them pass away without family nearby.

“No one is around to hold their hand and be with them in their final moments. It was tough to see the patients pass alone. You don’t wish that on anybody,” Kimema said.

It’s a sentiment he shares with coworker Scott Hughes. Hughes is a registered respiratory therapist with Franciscan Health.

“I think the worst of it has been everybody wants their family there and it’s been very much a gauntlet to try and work that out and continue to think of safety protocols. That’s been hard on everybody,” Hughes said.

Hughes says the second surge of COVID-19 was more severe than they expected, causing a lot of exhaustion among healthcare workers.

“The second time around was really a lot busier for us at least at this hospital. That next wave came and it was much bigger than I think what anyone really anticipated,” Hughes said.

The hospital was up to 120 COVID-19 inpatients a day around the holidays and into the new year. In the past few weeks, the numbers have declined and now they have around 30 COVID-19 inpatients a day. But even with fewer patients, the hospital staff is tasked with making difficult decisions daily. One of the most challenging ones is deciding to put a patient on a ventilator.

“That’s been a very difficult thing for all of us to watch and it’s very difficult for providers to make that decision,” Hughes said. “The choice becomes do I keep this patient breathing and getting oxygen to their tissues and organs like their brain or do we avoid the breathing machine and suffer the consequences of the oxygenation and at that point there is only one choice and that’s to keep them breathing.”

Hughes points out that the odds of survival tend to fall once a patient has been put on a ventilator.

“The percentage of ventilated patients with COVID-19 coming off the ventilator are not that great,” Hughes said.

It’s a choice he says weighs heavily on some of his coworkers.

“I feel like at some point or at some degree mental health is going to be a concern for everybody that’s been here through this,” Hughes said.

Franciscan Health is offering employee assistance programs including counselors and spiritual care teams to help staff during the pandemic.

Hughes says he’s never sought out that kind of help in the past but since the pandemic, he has talked to the counselors during tough times. He’s also grateful to work with a staff he can lean on.

“I think that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen from all this especially in our hospital," Hughes said. "When you come in to do a shift change, you’ll see four to six cultures communicating for the same goal to make sure the patients are taken care of and that each other are taken care of and that we all get home. That’s what I’ve seen out of this at Franciscan especially is just a huge sense of support and family from all the coworkers.”