They are tired and fearful, facing down a monster day after day, losing some battles and winning some, knowing that so many more battles are yet to come.
Of course, they are not OK. Who would be?
The front-page article headlined “We Are Not OK” by News-Post reporter Greg Swatek told the personal stories of nurses of Frederick Health Hospital’s intensive care ward. It was inspiring and dispiriting, hopeful and sad, all at the same time.
The women and men taking care of the most acutely ill victims of the COVID-19 virus are really and truly heroes.
Heather Miller is one of those hometown heroes. At the beginning of each shift, the mother of two dons her protective gear, hoping that she has done everything in the right order, worried that the months of daily repetition might lead her to skip just one step and expose herself and her family to the dreaded disease.
Suited up like a knight in protective armor, she steps into the world of the sick and dying — so much sickness and so much death.
New coronavirus cases have surpassed 2,000 every day in Maryland and 100 in Frederick County for more than two weeks. FHH and other hospitals are being stretched to their limit.
On Dec. 11, FHH had 62 coronavirus patients, the most at one time since the pandemic began, and more than half of the patients in the 19-bed ICU unit were being treated for COVID-19.
As Miller told our reporter, more and more of her fellow ICU nurses are saying, “I am not OK.” Then she added: “We are not OK. There is not enough support.”
As the pandemic continues to rage, concern is growing about the long-term impact on health care workers themselves.
As far back as May, the New York Times reported that “the doctors, nurses and emergency responders on the front lines of a pandemic they cannot control are battling a crushing sense of inadequacy and anxiety.”
A study by the National Institutes of Health last summer warned:
“It has been consistently shown that a high proportion of HCWs [health care workers] is at greater risk for developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms (PTSS).”
The study reported that PTSD rates among ICU staff in earlier crises has ranged from 8 percent to 30 percent. Women with young children are especially at risk, it said.
The current pandemic, the authors said, has an increased risk because of “the unprecedented numbers of critically ill patients, with an often unpredictable course of the disease, high mortality rates and lack of effective treatment, or treatment guidelines.”
It continued: “Thus, the burden of the current outbreak on health care providers deserves the closest attention, as it is extremely likely that health care workers involved in the diagnosis, treatment and care of patients with COVID-19 are at risk of developing psychological distress and other mental health symptoms.”
FHH began administering the new COVID-19 vaccine to employees last week, to keep them safe from the disease. Now, we must look to the future, to the time when the crisis has passed. To their credit, hospital leaders recognize that the staff is going to need a lot of support.
Cheryl Cioffi, the senior vice president, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer, told our reporter that the hospital was closely monitoring staff levels and making sure that everyone that worked there felt supported.
Miller herself started a Facebook page titled, “You Don’t Have to Save the World Alone” in the spring. Some doctors picked up on her effort and began offering mental health services to front-line health care providers for free.
What can you do to help these brave women? You already know.
Leslie Stine, another ICU nurse, told our reporter the best thing people can do is to avoid catching the disease in the first place. The people catching the disease today will be sick in a week, in the hospital a week later and may be dying a few days after that.
Don’t let that be you.
While we wait for the saving vaccine, take the basic steps we all know about: Wear a mask, wash your hands and maintain physical distance.
“Help us make our jobs easier,” she pleaded.