MILWAUKEE -- Nurses and health care workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic are not just facing added stress. A new study shows these workers are facing trauma and many are already exhibiting at least one symptom of post traumatic stress disorder.
It’s been nearly a year since the Milwaukee VA Hospital saw it’s first COVID-19 patient. Dawn Krueger, a staff nurse who works in the COVID unit, has been there since the beginning. Each patient is a face and a name that stays with her.
“You can’t forget them because it was something that was totally new. Something we had not seen. How rapidly these patients were deteriorating,” said Krueger.
It is taking a toll on front-line workers. More than 400,000 Americans have died of COVID and even more have been hospitalized. The chief nursing officer at Advocate Aurora Health Mary Beth Kingston says this is very different than what nurses are used to.
“We see illness and death in our jobs all the time. We're trained to care for people at all stages of their life. But our team members, our nurses are seeing more death, have seen more death over this past nine to 10 months than they have in the past,” Kingston.
In Milwaukee County, during the second surge of cases, an average of nine people died a day from COVID.
“It's been unrelenting and I think that's the other piece, we're used to working in crisis, but some usually will have a break from that crisis. And this, in many cases, it has continued,” said Kingston.
Krueger feels the weight of being with patients at the end of their lives when their families cannot.
“That is the hardest part. I don’t want to cry, like you think of that and immediately… one moment,” Krueger trails off to wipe away tears. “Sorry, but it is because they can’t say goodbye. Sorry, that’s a real hard one.”
“I can’t imagine that gets easier over time,” asked reporter Rebecca Klopf.
“No never, because you might be the last face someone sees. They won’t see their loved ones. It’s the nurse. So it’s hard,” said Krueger.
A study out of England published in the Journal Occupational Health found half of healthcare workers in the Intensive Care Units during June and July of 2020 reported symptoms consistent with post traumatic stress disorder.
Severe Aniety 11%
Problems with Alcohol 7%
Severe Depression 6%
In Milwaukee at the VA hospital, psychologist and program manager for outpatient mental health Alison Minkin said that have seen staff members with a variety of mental health issues.
“I think some of the initial things that people reported were feelings of certainly acute stress. We had people reporting problems sleeping, people reported irritability,” said Minkin.
The VA’s history of working with member of our military allowed them to anticipate the need for mental health intervention early on in the pandemic. Back in March of 2020, Minkin set up a quiet room for people to take mental breaks in. It is also staffed with therapists available to talk at a moment’s notice.
“There are so many of these feelings that go unsaid. And what that can do unfortunately is sometimes perpetuate some of the mental health symptoms that come with those feelings. So talking about it is the first step and acknowledging it second,” said Minkin.
At Advocate Aurora Health, Kingston said they are expanding a program where chaplains check in on staff members. They have also started peer to peer counseling and psychological first aid.
“What that does is that we identify individuals that are on the units. They're not external and they receive additional training in how to identify if someone needs assistance and how to connect them with resources,” said Kingston.
For Krueger, even though she knows the days can be hard, emotional and stressful on the COVID unit, she does not want to stop.
“I asked to come here,” said Krueger. “Because what you are doing really matters. And I think the tightness of the group is really is important. And I think for our veterans they need the people who really want to be there who aren’t afraid to go into the rooms and just be with them. And there are a bunch of us who volunteered that want to be here everyday.”
If you or anyone you know needs help during this time, even if you aren’t a healthcare worker you can call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). The CDC also has more resources that includes live chats with health professionals.