I-TEAM: Here’s a new problem in pandemic: Health care worker burnout

Published: Aug. 17, 2020 at 4:55 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb across the two-state, and so is burnout among healthcare workers.

A week ago, AU lost one of its own to the virus. The battle on the frontline as well as at home is taking a toll on health care workers.

A new report from the United Nations found frontline healthcare workers and first responders are showing COVID-19 related psychological distress in alarming numbers.

Imagine seeing the impact of the virus up close every day for months. Imagine never getting a break from it -- even when you go clock out and go home.

“It was a Saturday after I got through cutting the grass and everything,” Steve Schultz said. “I came in the house, and I just wasn’t feeling good then. The fever started Sunday getting worse and worse running a 102 at one time.”

We first introduced you to Steve and Kim Schultz a few weeks ago when Steve was wanting to warn the community the virus is real, showing us how it attacked his lungs. The couple is what you may call battle-weary after continuing to wage war on COVID-19 on multiple fronts.

For Kim, a front line nurse, it was just another day at the office.

“I take care of all management of patients in the ICU,” Kim said.

Back in June, Steve became another patient admitted to University Hospital with COVID-19. He was struggling to breathe.

“I was afraid and he was afraid because you don’t know what’s going to happen which is out of my control and usually I am there and in the middle of it and know what’s going on,” Kim said.

After a week in critical care, oxygen around the clock, plasma from a recovered donor, and Remdesivir, Steve was released and labeled a survivor. For Kim, her fight against coronavirus continues day after day. She acknowledges that many others like her are getting overwhelmed.

“I think they are frustrated, too,” Kim said.

“There are some people who are going to believe what they are going to believe, and it’s very frustrating because at some point my husband picked it up somewhere from someone not wearing a mask or washing their hands.”

Kim says she’s also had her moments when it comes to COVID.

She is not alone -- far from it. According to this report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, “health care workers involved in the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic are exposed to high levels of stressful or traumatic events” resulting in mental health issues such as “depression, anxiety, and insomnia.”

Of the nearly 700 healthcare workers studied, nearly half reported post-traumatic stress symptoms, followed by nearly a quarter feeling depressed, and another 20 percent said they suffer from anxiety.

The United Nations found PTSD symptoms among medical workers rampant from Canada to China.

Healthcare workers in the US aren’t immune either. In the height of the pandemic in New York City, emergency room Dr. Lorna Breen not only contracted COVID-19, but after she recovered and returned to work, she committed suicide telling family the situation was “untenable”

“I think some healthcare workers can’t handle it,” Kim said. “This is something like we have never seen before. ICU nurses are usually able to work through a lot of complicated situations and difficult situations but this is more than we have ever seen before.”

We found in Augusta, the toll on our medical community could be a large one. We combed through data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found health care workers make up 9 percent of the entire county workforce or about 19,000 jobs in Augusta-Richmond County.

As of today, we found these men and women are working in overdrive as ICU beds are scarce.

“It’s overwhelming to watch these patients who have no family members there in the ICU to hold their hand to let them know everything is going to be okay and when you see that day in and day out it has to take a toll on them and at some point, you just break,” Kim said.

Tari Dilks sees it, too, as the president of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.

“We have been doing this, for now, how long? Since March. So people that are in the frontline have been under constant stress for that amount of time and it’s unrelenting,” Dilks said.

“On top of some really intense things, they are starting to work overtime, so burnout is going to be huge and its beginning to be huge. We are seeing all types of consequences.”

“We will get through this. We will. We will come out on the other side of this and be more resilient because of it.”

For now, Kim and Steve are grateful to be home and healthy.

“It’s real. It’s for real,” Steve said.

“First and foremost, I would recommend getting on your knees and pray at night because the good Lord can bring you through many things,” Kim said.

“We will get through this. Tt’s just going to a little bit of time.”

Self-care is the most important defense against burnout. Disconnect from social media and take time for yourself.

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