A 10-year veteran critical care nurse, Lauren Leigh Henry has seen herself and her peers lose patients whose families they have come to love, agonize if everything possible had been done after a Code Blue, and struggle to support themselves after a particularly grueling and heart-wrenching shift.
Working in the ICU COVID-19 wing of one of the hardest-hit Los Angeles County hospitals, the Chamberlain graduate and Trabuco Canyon, Calif., resident says the brutality of the pandemic has caused the emotional toll for front line workers to implode.
“I've spent the last 10 years of my career between adult and pediatric critical care and have never seen more instances of burnout, emotional exhaustion, moral stress, anxiety and depression than right here in our field,” Henry, a specialist in the area of traumatic stress and psychology, wrote in a recent LinkedIn post. “With COVID-19 adding a great degree of stress to our entire healthcare system, these instances are coming to an ugly head.”
To that end, she has created “Safe Space for Healthcare Heroes,” a Facebook community that offers exactly that. The group holds weekly Zoom support calls: Covid-19: Safe Space for Healthcare Heroes. Through the calls, Henry and a community of volunteer, heart-centered physicians, psychologists, therapists, life coaches “and even a healthcare attorney,” discuss mental health tools and practices and listen if healthcare workers want to vent and have their voices be heard. In roughly one month of holding weekly calls, the group’s ranks grew to more than 250.
Since the outbreak started, Henry says she has watched as the demands of her job have changed in ways she never could have imagined.
In addition to trying to support front line healthcare workers who are increasingly getting stressed and torn by their desire to want to do more, Henry is very concerned about the gut-wrenching pain patients and their loved ones are undergoing because of the strict no visitor policies in hospitals across the country, which separates them at a time when they need each other most.
“With all of our protective gear, it’s hard to make that special connection to the person at the other end of the many tubes and lines,” she says. “We had one patient who had a heart attack and was super agitated and combative. It seemed like even more so than being angry, he probably was very scared. I am certified in PTSD and trauma training and so I went into his room and just by letting him talk and listening to him it helped him calm down and I think he eventually started to feel safe again. He even started joking about what his wife would do if she knew he was giving the nurses a hard time. But COVID has changed the way nurses connect with their patients because it has created this culture where it is best to minimize the time spent in the patient’s room. That’s just difficult, for the patient and for the nurse. And, that doesn’t even begin to touch upon the pain the patient’s family is going through. It’s also difficult that we don’t really get to spend much time getting to know our patients, either, especially not having the families there to advocate for them.”
That’s when she created “Because We Care,” a one-page sheet for nurses and healthcare professionals to use as a tool to personalize the patient experience. The sheet asks questions including: who is their support person; how many children and grandchildren they have; what kind of music they like to be relaxed (and to get them up and going); a fun fact about them and more.
“It’s also potentially helpful for our intubated ICU patients as well because we have more things to ask about than the usual: “Can you wiggle your toes? We can also play someone’s favorite music or TV channel to help our sedated patients be more relaxed and at ease. “
When Henry saw a patient alone in her room coding and the hospital staff was outside the room not going in to do CPR, she started crying.
“She wasn’t an older lady or anything, but I could see the look on her face,” she says. “It’s also really hard to be a caring, compassionate nurse and have to be told ‘we’re not coding patients.’ That is against our very nature.”
“I knew I had to do something,” she says. “The height of COVID felt like a war zone and we need to be talking about what it feels like to be in a war zone. We train soldiers on how to deal with emotional stress before combat, and I believe we need to be training nurses on how to navigate these emotional challenges as well.”
Perhaps the silver lining of the pandemic is that COVID-19 has shown and is spotlighting the raw emotional hardships nurses endure. Only now they are so omnipresent and so clear to see how the trauma is so intense, says Henry.
“We have to find ways to help healthcare workers deal with this,” she says. “People should not be dying alone, and nurses should not have to watch that happen. I never thought of myself as a really great nurse, but now I see how important holding a hand can be, smiling and being there for a patient beyond the medical care.”
For the long term, Henry hopes the Facebook community and the concept of emotionally supporting and training healthcare workers is an idea that will explode and be adopted widely. She hopes the conversations will encourage hospitals to start implementing programs to help their staff rebuild their staff’s resilience.
In the meantime, she says she’s hunkering down with her own self-care practice which includes hiking the trails near her home, “really getting out in nature helps,” and “giving myself time to cry, to have a really good ugly cry and feel all the feelings I need to. That’s the only way I can feel light again. And, I also think it is really important for nurses to reach out and find the people in their lives who can really support them,” she says.
And she recommends lots of baths with Epsom salts and candles and singing.
“I love to sing and play the piano,” she says. “Being creative is really, really important.”
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We appreciate your commitment to the continued well-being of our Chamberlain community and support during this unprecedented time. Please visit the Chamberlain University website for the latest updates regarding COVID-19.
By Mary Beth Sammons
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