Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories first published in the Chronicle’s annual Health and Wellness special section of the March 1 print edition, sponsored for the second year by Franciscan Health.
When COVID-19’s first big spike inundated health care facilities around the country with cases of the deadly virus and a bevy of new protocols to curb the spread, health care workers were on the front lines of a battle against the coronavirus.
They risked their own well-being, sometimes short on supplies and preparedness, witnessed death and despair daily, and worked extra shifts in a fight against an overwhelming opponent. They were quickly hailed as heroes.
The second time around in autumn, when numbers started to rise to new highs that never truly relented until mid-January? Not so much acclaim, according to Cindy Mele, a registered nurse and the director of critical care at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields.
“The first round of COVID, I think the country really got on board,” Mele said. “Second wave — things changed a little bit.”
Health care workers are still facing all of the things they were in the spring — albeit with a better sense of the war they are now waging — but Mele said they have not seen the same kind of support from the community at-large.
Within the confines of Franciscan Health, nurses are regularly dealing with anger from patients and their families over waits for beds. And some have adopted the attitude that this is what health care workers signed up to do.
“The reality is: No one signed up for a pandemic,” Mele said.
Mari Lynn Ross, the chief nursing officer for the Olympia Fields facility, said her team always had some expectation that this was going to be a long battle that would exhaust, overwhelm and ultimately traumatize many of them. The early days of it were largely painted by the unknowns.
“We didn’t know what we were bringing home,” Ross said of the virus.
The struggles inside the hospital with infection were exacerbated by outside factors. It was tough for anyone to change shifts, as spouses shifted to work from home or lost their jobs entirely. Extra hours were demanded, but finding child care is no easy task during a pandemic — harder yet if you’re a nurse.
“All you had to do is tell people you’re a health care worker and you couldn’t find a baby-sitter,” Ross said.
Add schools closing to the list of concerns for a young staff, many of whom are parents, Mele said. Now they have to contend with eLearning, too.
“That was an angst with our staff,” Mele said.
The summer, when the United States experienced its lowest case numbers, provided a bit of a reprieve for the staff, Ross said. But they knew it would not last.
“Then, we got to breathe a little bit,” she said. “But we always knew we were going to get another surge.”
On top of everything else, even within the walls of a hospital, nurses had to hear people tell them they do not think COVID-19 is real. Mele said that is a tough pill to swallow for health care workers.
“While the world has been contemplating whether this is real or not, they’ve been here the entire time, completely giving,” she said. “They, too, have lost and seen loss.”
Ross said people refusing to do simple things such as wear masks is insult to injury for nurses.
“These are people who are on the front lines, caring for people,” she said. “When we ask you to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you spent a day in their position, you might look at things a little differently.”
The slights are especially tough for staff who have endured months of people suffering at the hands of the virus. No visitor policies have, at times, meant nurses are the only ones physically present for those during some dark times.
“We had patients who were dying, and the nurse was holding the hand of a patient and an iPad so families could be there,” Ross said. “No one signed up for this.”
The team even worked to bring couples stricken with the disease together, no matter how hard that might be, when one of them was dying. Mele said nurses also saw co-workers get sick from COVID-19 and sometimes even wind up in the hospital where they worked — people they know well, suffering before them and relying on them at the same time.
“It was horrible on staff to have to watch that,” Mele said. “Seeing the spread when COVID struck a household — it could take an entire household, and we saw that.”
But there also have been successes over the last year, Mele said. Among them is the renewed sense of camaraderie among people working at Franciscan Health.
“One of the things that was great the second time was staff really rallying around and celebrating each other,” Mele said.
Ross and Mele said while their roles as leaders have necessitated being optimistic and positive, transparency has been particularly important during the pandemic. Nurses need to know what is going on. Ross said that included PPE availability and daily calls regarding positivity rates in the hospital as things changed “rapidly and quickly.”
“It’s that transparency that eased some of their fear,” Ross said.
Staff also needs leaders who are empathetic and truly listening to what is being communicated to them, Mele said. But it can be hard to comfort people in a “no hugs allowed” environment.
“We found other ways to embrace them,” Mele said. “There are times when it got scary. We looked for signs of coping issues. We validated what we saw.”
While the rollout of vaccines is making health care workers optimistic, according to Mele, they know concerns remain. Variants of the virus are among them, Ross said, as are the lingering effects of what nurses are going through.
“Anyone who is in health care will be affected one way or another,” Mele said.
The reality of that post-traumatic stress has been made no easier by this idea of being forgotten through the worst of it. But it does provide a point of comparison. Mele has thought recently about how every day, the average American wakes up to go about their business, not thinking about the troops overseas who are serving their country. Out of sight, out of mind.
People may not be able to see COVID-19. They may not see the nurses who are inside the walls of hospitals — not thousands of miles away but in neighboring villages — suiting up every day to serve in the face of exhaustion, trauma and the overwhelming prospects of an ongoing pandemic. But it happens all the same.
“They wake up every day, giving their all,” Mele said. “They continue to come in and keep giving.”