RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Front-line healthcare workers and their mental health were at the center of a discussion on Monday between U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and doctors and nurses from across Virginia.
The goal of the discussion was to allow healthcare providers to share their experiences coping with the coronavirus pandemic at work.
The discussion began with a word from Jennifer Feist, whose sister, Dr. Lorna Breen, died by suicide in Charlottesville in April. Breen was an emergency room physician who took care of COVID-19 patients in a New York hospital for several weeks before her death. She also contracted the virus herself.
Breen was a dedicated doctor who became burned out and exhausted by the levels of disease and dying she saw in the hospital, as well as the long hours she worked trying to battle the virus alongside her colleagues. Her family encouraged her to seek help, but Breen felt that admitting her struggles could negatively impact her job, according to the Dr. Lorna Breen Foundation.
Currently, U.S. Congress is considering the passage of a bill named after Breen. If passed, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act would aim to prevent healthcare worker suicide and burnout by promoting mental and behavioral health and training to them.
“I know that when my sister died, it shined a light on the stigma of mental health in our health care community, and on the cultural and structural reinforcers of that stigma,” Feist said. “This is an existing issue. This is a pre-existing issue, and it has gotten so much worse. These people are working hard, and they’ve worked for months and months, and they need our support.”
Among those who also shared their experiences working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic was Aliese Harrison, a nurse at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Virginia. She spoke about the stress of caring for COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit, including supporting them when their families aren’t able to sit at their bedsides.
“They don’t know where their family is. You help them Facetime. You hold the phone to their ear and let their families give them words of encouragement while you’re wearing all that PPE. You can feel sweat running down your back, and you stay in there with them as long as you can,” she said. “I think that’s what gets me the most. That is so heartbreaking.”
Dr. Karen Door, who works for Valley Health in Winchester, Virginia, spoke about the expanded roles of nurses working in COVID-19 units. She said that in addition to their duties as health care providers, nurses are working under new pressures to be like surrogate family members for coronavirus patients. They’re forming strong bonds with those patients, but it takes a heavy psychological toll on nurses.
“We’re asking them to not only be nurses, caring for these patients as a nurse, but we’re asking them to be everything to these patients because these patients are so isolated,” Dorr said.
Dr. Rehan Qayyum, the chair of the Division of Hospital Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Health said that burnout is an issue that has become worse among his colleagues, who have been taking care of COVID-19 patients since April.
He said in addition to worrying about sick patients, health care workers also have stress about their colleagues and loved ones becoming sick. He said some of his colleagues have chosen to isolate themselves to prevent their families from catching COVID-19.
“Our lives have changed in many ways. Our families are worried about us,” he said.