PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — It’s continuous and it’s intense: Seasoned health care professionals are having to keep up with the rapid flow of patients stricken with a disease that only about a year ago didn’t even have a name.

It comes at a cost to their own physical and mental health.

“It’s been a marathon of stress,” said Dr. Lewis Siegel, department chair for emergency medicine at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center.

“I think I would be lying if I said we aren’t tired,” said Kelsey Jones, a nursing manager at Sentara Leigh Hospital.

Michael Verano, a licensed professional counselor with Sentara’s employee assistance program, sees providers who are “going from room to room literally, where people are passing. It’s just this overwhelming grief.”

“You have this pit in your stomach because everyone is fighting for their lives,” said Emily Grace Harris, and ICU nurse at Sentara Careplex Hampton.

Even for people accustomed and trained to deal with the sick and the dying, the relentless continuity of COVID-19 is wearing them down.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing a lot of deaths and a lot of serious illness,” Siegel said.

The arrival of the vaccine offers hope, but several more months of uncertainty remain.

“The stress started back in March and April with the unknowns,” Siegel said.

Verano says health care workers are dealing with what he calls “moral injury and complicated grief.”

“They’re feeling like ‘I can’t be up to my standards and my values,'” Verano said.

Jones says she likes to journal as a way to embrace and manage her emotions.

“We all feel like the world is spinning backwards, but in full reality it’s continuing to move forward,” she said.

Verano says the emotional investment with COVID-19 is greater, because the patients can’t have family with them in their final days. Therefore, those who are physically in the hospitals become “family.”

“[The medical providers] are with these people. They’re bedside, they are surrogate family, so that attachment grows,” he said.

“Holding a hand for a patient that has no family member there. And then at the end of the 12 hours, that may not be enough,” Harris said.

It’s a roller coaster of feelings ranging from happiness to sorrow.

“It’s exciting at times and we are sharing in the joys when people do progress and improve,” Jones said, “but we’re also mourning their loss. And those are the pieces that do take a toll.”

Harris remembers a case where a man was struggling to breathe at Sentara Careplex Hampton and didn’t realize he was about to die.

“I had him FaceTime his family because I said ‘This may be your last. You don’t know and you have to be honest with them. You need to tell them that you love them and need to have that what-is-your-wishes conversation, as scary and as hard as that is,'” Harris recalled.

“He was telling his daughter ‘I love you, and we’re going to be OK.’ And then he starts crying and she starts crying and eventually I have to take the iPad away and say ‘It’s time, we have to do this,'” she said.

Harris then put the man on a ventilator, and had to move on to her next ICU patient.

“That man fought for his life for three weeks on that vent. Then you’re reading the paper, and you see the obituaries, and he’s in there. It hurts, you feel personal. You talked to their family through the whole process and helped them be strong, while also sharing the reality of the situation,” she said.

Despite the physical and emotional toll, the compassion from medical providers continues.

“Nursing, in particular, has to learn how to care for yourself because you cannot continue to care for others if you do not care for yourself,” Jones said.

All the major systems in Hampton Roads offer help to their providers on the front lines. And being who they are, they know some remedies of their own.

“I have definitely changed my eating habits. I eat more food with protein, fruits, and water,” said Antoinette Davis, a respiratory therapist at Sentara Careplex Hampton.

“From a stress standpoint, I will say that I am definitely exercising more than I did prior to the pandemic,” said Dr. Mark Hughes, who works in the emergency room at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center.

Harris takes refuge in music.

“For two minutes out of my day, I’ll go to the bathroom because that’s where you won’t get interrupted,” she said, letting out a laugh that’s rare these days. “I’ll play a song, and just breathe and listen and recharge.”

Dr. Lorna Breen

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is co-sponsoring the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. It would dedicate anywhere from $50 million to $100 million dollars for mental health services at first, with ongoing funding after that. It’s named in memory of the ER doctor and Charlottesville native who was so overworked and overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients last year in New York City, that she took her own life.

“It will make it easier for health care professionals to seek mental health assistance without worrying about whether it’s gonna affect [their] job or [their] license or credentials,” Kaine said.

Hughes can see how Breen would have been pushed over the edge.

“I think it’s understandable that those things can happen — and unfortunate that she didn’t have the resources available to help combat it,” Hughes said.