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Who Takes Care of Nurses?

Sandford Nurse

What does the number 1,250 mean to most South Dakotans? Unless it’s your loved one, friend or co-worker has lost their life to COVID-19, probably not much. But to the many healthcare workers caring for dying patients, this number is taking its toll. SDPB’s Lura Roti visits with a Registered Nurse and hospital therapist to try to understand how the pandemic impacts their mental health.

Registered Nurse, Sarah Brown typically cares for children in the castle that is home to Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls. With COVID-19 numbers surging, she now spends many 12-hour shifts on critical care and other adult floors caring for very sick adults.

On a recent day off, while her baby and toddler were napping, I asked her how she is feeling.

“I’m scared. I’m anxious. I’m exhausted and I’m overwhelmed. There’s constant change for nurses right now, whether its policy procedure, everybody knows there’s constant change with, you know, what’ the right and the wrong with COVID. We’re tired. We’re abused at times. We, at times feel hopeless and defeated. But then, I stop and I pause and I feel empowered, and I feel strengthened and I feel grateful. And I look around at my coworkers and my colleagues and I see family and I’m humbled and I’m hopeful and I’m not alone and I’m not in this battle alone,” Brown says.

Unfortunately, when it comes to her feelings of anxiety, Sarah has a lot of company, says Integrated Health Therapist, Diane Johnson-Michell. In her work at Sanford, Diane is on-call to help staff through traumatic experiences.

“Right now, our caseload has gone up considerably and the people that we see, before they would be managing their anxiety and depression at a moderate level. Most now, everybody’s very heightened and everybody is just incredibly stressed out… just so many factors that play into that,” Johnson-Michell says.

Specifically, death.

“You’ve seen the numbers as far as how many people that die from COVID every day in South Dakota, and it’s pretty darn alarming,” Johnson-Michell says.

She explains that before the pandemic, healthcare staff in some areas of the hospital knew they would likely have a patient die on their shift. But the extreme amount of death brought on by the pandemic is taking its toll.

“There’s just a lot of sadness, and I think that’s the piece, that it’s just pretty much impossible to get away from. You know when you work in environment like this, where so many people are dying constantly,” Johnson-Michell says.

“That has an accumulative effect on people’s psychology because between shifts they might not have that ability to kind of recoup mentally,” Johnson-Michell says.

“As a nurse, every day, COVID or no COVID, we carry a weight after our shift that most people don’t have. And I think when you are in the COVID units, there’s just a heightened level of taking on, and carrying that burden,” says Brown.

Because of this, Sarah Brown echoes Diane’s concerns.

“I just kind of dawned on me and I thought, you know, who takes care of the nurse? At the end of the day, who does look out for us, when we are constantly giving of ourselves, day in and day out? And that’s what we’re called to do. That’s what we love to do. That’s what we thrive to do. But we if by nature we are not good at self-care, who’s gonna watch out for us. So, I challenge my coworkers and I challenge the community to be vigilant of one another and in self-care and mental health is so important,” Brown says.

Driving home from a recent shift, Sarah says she was overcome with feelings for those she works with.

“I was helping in critical care. And I was on my drive home and I wanted to try and say to my coworkers something, and the only three words that I could think of was, “I see you,” Brown says.

And it just kept repeating in my head and I just kept playing it over and over for some reason. It’s I see you.

I see you in the laundry department pulling extra hours because our laundry needs have gone up astronomically. I see you in nutrition services, who are people who are now being asked to sit with people who are delirious and need to be kept safe. I see my nursing co-workers who are pulling extra hours taking on extra load and the acuity of patients is high. I see you.”

For her own mental health, Sarah says she relies on her faith and family. So, she spends her days off focusing on her young sons and husband and makes time to read her Bible.