What happens to health care workers after the coronavirus?

Webster’s Dictionary defines trauma as a “disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe emotional stress.”

An article in MarketWatch describes the reality of a doctor after being on the frontlines in Wuhan for two months:

Li is mentally and psychologically at a loss for what to do next. He can’t sleep or eat, he often feels dazed, and sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, he weeps.

Nurses have described caring for patients in NYC “absolute chaos,” “the medical equivalent of a war zone,” “heartbreaking,” and often say, “I am afraid to go to work.”

Health care workers are under that severe emotional distress described in the definition. Deaths are the norm. Patients deteriorate quickly. A dead body is wrapped up and taken to the refrigerated truck outside the hospital, and another critical patient quickly takes that bed, and it starts all over again. It goes on day after day after day. Besides seeing death daily, caregivers fear getting the virus themselves and possibly dying.

When this ends, and it will end, how are medical staff supposed to deal with the aftermath? How are they supposed to adjust to “normal” life? Their lives have been permanently changed. You cannot go through this kind of trauma and not have it change you.

No one ever thought it would get this bad here. We trusted our government, our health care system to be ready for something like this. They weren’t ready. They couldn’t guarantee the protection of their own staff. Imagine a soldier going into battle without a rifle, flak jacket, or helmet. That is what health care workers have been asked to do. We don’t have what you need, but you still have to work. In other words, good luck.

After this is over, those who work in hospitals will be expected to continue their jobs. People don’t stop getting sick. There is money to be made. They will feel like aliens from outer space, disoriented. How will they deal with Billy’s sore throat or Kelly’s one hour of vomiting when they present to the ER desk after they just got out of being in a war zone?

Your family will want to get back to normal. You aren’t the person you were before. You have changed. They haven’t been through what you have. You don’t know how to explain it to them.

The memories are fresh. They haunt your dreams. Things happen that remind you of it. You cry unexpectedly. You feel like you are going through the motions. You may drink to relieve the pain and anxiety.
You feel alone.

You are supposed to be strong. You are that tough ICU or ER nurse, that doctor that is unflappable. You don’t need help — until you do.

Health care workers will need readjustment counseling, just like a soldier after a war. They need to learn what to expect after a trauma. They need to know how to take care of themselves. It needs to involve their family.

They need crisis lines available, individual therapy, support groups. Without all this, medicine will lose many nurses, doctors, and everyone who does any job in a hospital.

The most important thing they will need is each other. Just being with people who have been through the same experience can make all the difference.

Susan Shannon is a retired nurse who blogs at madness: tales of a retired emergency room nurse.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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