by Tyler Olson/Black Press Media
For nurses, the fight against COVID-19 has brought increased stress, anxiety, and even danger to an already complex job.
It has made an already hard job dramatically more difficult. But as they face off against the toughest foe that Canada’s health-care system has encountered in a century, nurses are also experiencing new levels of camaraderie, purpose, and appreciation.
“It’s a period of high anxiety for most of us,” Christine Sorensen, the head of the BC Nurses’ Union and a longtime nurse, told Black Press Media.
Some hospital departments and health-care facilities are seeing large numbers of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.
Others have many empty beds – a rarity in normal times – as they anxiously await a potential surge in cases.
And while the details shift, the exhausting facts remain the same: to prevent the transmission and spread of the virus, every health-care worker must continuously keep COVID-19 top of mind.
On top of all that, they also have to deal with shortages of personal protective equipment.
“This is a very unusual time for nurses,” Sorensen said. “You have some departments that are working incredibly hard physically, and are stressed, and the anxiety’s there – ICU and emerg – and you have other units where it’s quieter but the patients they’re caring for are acutely very ill.
“And because there are limitations on visitors, there’s a lot more emotional support.”
Sorensen calls that emotional support the “art of nursing.” But that art is hard work and emotionally draining – particularly when nurses have to not only deal with increased workplace stress, but also all of the issues confronting everyone in a socially distanced world.
“Nurses are highly stressed right now,” Sorensen said. “Every patient should be considered as a possible carrier of COVID until they’ve tested negative. They’re wearing a lot of personal protective equipment. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the work environment about what might come through the door that day.”
Nurses have family members who are out of work, children out of school, and an array of other challenges. Some also have to deal with community members who don’t want to be associated with nurses or their associates, out of the misguided belief that doing so would put them at risk of contracting the virus.
To keep going, health-care workers are bonding in new ways and pushing each other forward.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie right now in the health-care system: The idea that we’re in it together, we’re here to support each other, we’ll get through this together… that this is our big fight and we’re going to do this together as a team,” Sorensen said.
“We always work as teams, but even more so now. There’s more emotional connection as teams, a coming together as healthcare workers for that emotional support.”
Nurses, which in Langley Memorial Hospital accounts for about 150 (between emergency and critical care), are also taking strength from shows of support in the community.
“They are great morale boosters to see the community come together to support all health-care workers and essential service workers, because this really is a team effort,” Sorensen said.
“I think for a long time, health-care workers – particularly nurses – while we know we’re valued by society, we’ve often felt under-appreciated, particularly by employers or the government… It reminds us all how important human connection is, whether it’s the nurse providing that support to a patient, or the community providing the support to the nurse. It tells us all about human connection and the need for it.”
Simply seeing acts of social distancing in the community can help mitigate some of the stress, Sorensen said.
But the flip side of that comes from seeing people who still haven’t got the message about the importance of physical distancing, and from worries that warmer weather may spur more people to gather together.
“I do see – and I don’t know their situation – areas where there’s construction or there’s road crews or there’s young people still congregating. I know what the risk is. I know that it isn’t only elderly people who will get this disease and who will be very sick, and I think of all of the people who are doing their very best to control this,” Sorensen said.
“Nurses are frustrated when we see people flaunting the directives from the public health officer to stay home, socially isolate yourself, and stay six feet apart.
“When people aren’t doing that, it’s frustrating because we’re putting our lives on the line and everybody’s actions today have ramifications for other people and it seems selfish when people aren’t following those directives,” she concluded.