‘How do you ever truly recover from seeing so much death?’ Anguished nurses face the pandemic’s second wave - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

‘How do you ever truly recover from seeing so much death?’ Anguished nurses face the pandemic’s second wave

Taken from NJ.com

By Alex Napoliello | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

November 8, 2020

The woman was dying alone in a hospital bed.

The only person with her was a 38-year-old nurse relatively new to the field. Tiffany Busby held her patient’s hand tight, rubbed her head gently and whispered in her ear that everything was going to be all right.

Except it wasn’t.

Busby knew that. But nurses must maintain a calm façade, especially in the face of a pandemic. She took out her iPhone that day in early April, plopped it in a laboratory bag and called the woman’s children on FaceTime so they could say goodbye. Then she watched as the woman took her last breaths, another victim of COVID-19.

“She was too young to die,” Busby said.

The woman’s children thanked her on Facebook for her kindness. Still, Busby feels disappointed months later.

“It’s hard for me because I feel like I failed them,” Busby told NJ Advance Media as she fought back tears. “We couldn’t save their mother even though we tried so hard. We lost so many people.”

At the height of the pandemic last spring, Busby’s unit at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune sometimes lost more than 10 people to the coronavirus in one shift, she said. And after every death, nurses were the ones who carefully cleaned the bodies and prepared the room for the next patient.

The painful routine eventually left them numb.

“I had to excuse myself many times to the bathroom because I couldn’t withhold my sobbing,” Busby said. “How do you ever truly recover from seeing so much death?”

It’s a question hospital officials, nurses and health experts are mulling as COVID-19 cases in New Jersey continue to surge. The state reported 3,207 new cases Saturday — the highest number of daily positive tests since April 27, around the peak of the initial outbreak — and 1,392 hospitalizations, the most since June 11.

“They continue to show that the second wave of the coronavirus is no longer something off in the future. It is coming, and it is coming now,” Gov. Phil Murphy said recently. “We have been seeing the numbers of new cases grow exponentially across the past several weeks, and along with that, the numbers of patients being treated in our hospitals has similarly been on the rise.”

The soaring caseload will put only more strain on emotionally exhausted nurses.

In May, the World Health Organization issued a report detailing the pandemic’s impact on mental health, highlighting health care workers as a population of concern. Not only are these workers witnessing so much death, the report said, but they are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety from fears of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families.

“There have been reports of suicide attempts and suicide by health-care workers,” the report stated. No agency keeps statistics on how many health care workers have died by suicide.

The anxiety was compounded when these workers lost their usual stress reducers — the elliptical at the gym, happy hour with friends, the escape offered by a movie theater. Months later, it’s still hard to enjoy these diversions. And the current uncertainty only makes it worse as cases once again mount, although they remain far below the peak of 8,000-plus hospitalizations in April.

“Dealing with the unknown leads to a lot of anxiety,” said Dr. Chantal Brazeau, a psychiatrist and chief wellness officer at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. “There’s a bit less unknown for the second surge since we have learned, thankfully, from the first. Yet there are still some unknowns that we face.”

Frontline health care workers, Brazeau said, may still feel the repercussions of the first surge, which is a significant concern.

“When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to stop and process the different emotions that you feel in great detail because you have to go on to the next crisis and the next situation,” she explained. “People take stock (of their emotions) after the surge. But with this one, we’re going into this other surge already fatigued from the first one.”

Nurses have whimpered in their cars after shifts. They have endured sleepless nights. And they have sought refuge in each other.

There have even been nurses who have questioned their purpose and whether caring for the sick is their calling.

“I think a lot of our nurses — some realize it and some don’t — that they do have post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Sheryl Mount, a nurse of 35 years and president of the local nurses’ union at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly. “I can hear it in some of the things they’re saying to me. Some people are saying, ‘I want a different job’ or ‘I can’t take any more of this.’”

In addition to younger nurses rethinking their careers, there are older nurses close to retirement who have decided it’s time to exit.

“We’ve had a record number of retirements,” Mount said.

At one hospital in New Jersey, 30 nurses have retired, according to Debbie White, the president of the Health Professionals & Allied Employees, a union that represents 14,000 nurses and other frontline health care workers. She declined to disclose the hospital.

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