Pandemic puts strain on nurses, Tri-Cities hospital system continuing efforts to minimize psychological impact

Regional News

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Nurses have played a huge role in COVID-19 patient recovery.

The pandemic has forced health care workers to face unprecedented scenarios, increasing the risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Nurses within the Tri-Cities have dealt with a different kind of work within the last 12 months, related to the pandemic. From working additional hours because of the volume of COVID patients to wearing PPE for 12 hours and distancing themselves from family, nurses have had the entire world in their hands — and the ones in the Tri-Cities were no different.

“Even our nurses who were not necessarily assigned to COVID patients had to have levels of PPE above what they normally do,” said Ballad Health Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Lisa Smithgall. “They had to wear a mask, they had to wear goggles for every patient interaction because that was a CDC recommendation and for general patient care because of the fact that COVID can be asymptomatic.”

In some cases, nurses caring for COVID patients developed rashes on their faces due from wearing masks.

“As a result, you know our nurses experienced the rash from the mask. If you wear a mask continuously for almost 12 hours of your shift, it can be really detrimental to your skin,” Smithgall said.

Smithgall said they have had an increased turnover of staff in their hospitals due to the pandemic.

“We have had an increased turnover of staff in our hospitals but that mimics the national average of things happening as well. A lot of nurses who were approaching retirement age with the increased stress opted to retire in the summer. Probably a little early than they would have liked to,” Smithgall explained.

The health system had about 3,500 nurses, a majority of which are in hospital environments. Smithgall said she has noticed the pandemic taking an emotional toll on them.

“The nurses have dealt with a higher level of patients succumbing to disease than the previous year, just because sometimes two or three times in a shift, depending if you’re in a dedicated COVID unit,” she added.

According to the International Classification of Diseases, also known as ICD-10, PTSD is broken into three groups:

  • Intrusion: recurrent images, dreams, or memories related to a traumatic experience.
  • Avoidance: of places, people, or topics related to the traumatic experience.
  • Arousal: understood as increased psychophysiological reactivity in the form of attention-deficit disorders.

“It [COVID-19] not only created very, very ill people but also put a risk to self and that really made people sometimes question, ‘what is it I’m doing here?’ I think that is going to really cause a catalyst for education to say, ‘This is what it means when you care for people.’ So, that we can prepare people so that they have resilience and skill sets that they can deal with that.”

A study published in January through the National Center for Biotechnology Information states there was a relationship between the lack of medical training on COVID-19 or even learning about how to approach a pandemic.

“I think that what this pandemic and the impact to healthcare is going to prove to all of us is that we need to do a better preparation of people in the academic environment for the emotional tolls of the work,” Smithgall said.

Smithgall said the health system is continuing its efforts to help minimize the psychological impact on nurses.

“We adjusted some salaries, we provided incentives, we provided incentives for COVID care,” Smithgall said. “We increased our employee assistance program. We increased the hours per day that we have that service available, we increased in the way that we have same-day appointments … if someone called, they could get right in and seek someone that same day.”

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