ICU Health Care Workers Describe 'Overwhelming' Stress of COVID Care

A "jumbled ball of emotions" as fatigue builds in hospitals caring for a growing number of coronavirus patients across U.S.
Posted at 5:32 PM, Dec 04, 2020


"It's busy, you know, we're in the process of expanding our ICU right now," said Dr. John Hammer, an infectious disease specialist at Rose Medical Center. 


“For a lot of these patients, we're the last people that they talk to. And we hold that when we go home at night," said Amy Spitzner, a Mayo Clinic ICU nurse.

Respiratory Therapists in the ICU. 

"It's overwhelming and we're doing the best we can to keep up," Desirae Cogswell, a Mayo Clinic ICU respiratory therapist, said.

We spoke to dozens of health care workers across the country, where hospitalization surges are massive, adding more strain on an already high-stress situation.

Take Dr. John Coleman at Northwestern Medical Center in Chicago. In a single day, he balances over 20 patients on his COVID ICU floor. His hospital is seeing two and half times the patients they normally handle. 

"It requires a high amount of mental burden and requires a high amount of physical burden just to be able to see all those patients. And we're starting to see the strain on the health system as just fatigue sets in," he told Newsy.

"Because it's being spread so rapidly throughout the community, then we may not have the staffing support that we need. And that's problematic. Whether or not we have actual beds," Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an infectious disease specialist at Nebraska Medicine, said. 

Newsy reporter Lindsey Theis asked, "What does that do for your stress level?"

"I think we're all stressed out. I know we're all living in a jumbled ball of emotions and exhaustion and stress and anxiety."

"People don't realize that impact, that link to quality and safety of health care," Bernadette Melnyk, chief wellness officer at Ohio State University, said.

Melnyk helped design the wellness plans for a National Academy of Medicine Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being. She says the need to address burnout, high rates of depression, addiction and suicide among medical professionals is heightened by the pandemic — worsened by surges like the one we’re in now.

"Before the pandemic, we had rates burnout between 50 and 60 percent. Think about it even further now that, in fact, safety, quality, turnover. We're going to see major shortages of nurses in particular into the future," she said.

To combat this, some hospitals, like Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, are running several mental health programs focusing on mindfulness, therapy looking at  emotional regulation and coping, and pairing nurses with nurse practitioner students to function as their wellness coach through Covid. Research shows it's helping.

Mental health experts say everyone benefits by tackling how traumatic it can be for front line health care workers who see very sick COVID patients day in, day out.

"You're seeing a situation at its worst and that leaves a mark on you. And it's hard to forget sometimes what you see, what you've heard, how you see families being impacted by this. That's heavy. And we are seeing a lot of health care providers dealing with PTSD symptoms of their own," Dr. Eric French, medical director of adult psychiatry at HCA Healthcare, told Newsy.

Meanwhile, health care providers continue to work overtime and extra shifts, bracing for the months ahead.

“I've never seen it like this. And I hope that the surge ends soon and that this, we don't ever have to deal with this again,”  Spitzner said.