By Don Stookey, CHESP
It began with a scratchy throat.
I had just come back from a weekend hike through the mountains, and the hillside’s flowers were in full bloom. It must have been allergies, I thought. On Monday, I went to work at the hospital in Washington State where I have been serving as a health care leader the past several months.
As a health care leader with KESTGO, I often serve as an interim administrative leader in hospitals far from home, away from my family. During these long stays, the hospital staff become my family. Since the coronavirus outbreak, we have implemented the proper safety protocols, including 100 percent mask compliance, routine hand washing and social distancing.
At our Monday morning safety huddle, our employee health nurse noted that my voice sounded raspy. I told her I had just returned from a weekend trip outdoors. “Even so, you should probably go get tested just to be sure,” she said.
I was shocked when the results came back positive – COVID-19.
How was this even possible? The only places I visit are the hospital, home, and the grocery store. But the reality of such an infectious disease is that contagion can happen almost anywhere. It can occur from something as simple as touching an infected box of food on the shelf at a grocery store, and then touching your face or eyes for only a moment.
After the diagnosis, I began to worry. What would happen next?
A family member had come down with COVID-19 at the beginning of the outbreak and was in very poor health for several weeks. Would my reaction be the same?
Far from home, away from my family and my support system, I now had to quarantine for at least 10 days alone. Thankfully, I was lucky. My symptoms were mild. I never experienced a fever or breathing problems. Just a scratchy throat, congestion, and a few night sweats.
I was grateful that my hospital family came to my aid. Nurses and Doctors brought me enough food to last me through quarantine. I was able to join in on our calls when I could and continue serving our patients and team. I was one of the lucky ones.
But the sad reality is that many of our patients and colleagues are not so fortunate.
The virus continues to sweep across the country with no end in sight. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 4.6 million cases of the coronavirus and more than 157,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.
Those who suffer the worst symptoms often face the virus on their own, in quarantine, unable to communicate with loved ones except through a smartphone.
They say that as a health care provider, you never really know what your patients are going through until you’ve been in their shoes.
After contracting COVID-19 myself, this experience has completely opened my eyes to what is important – focusing your energy on the right things, and the right priorities.
The experience has shed light on the importance of mental health for patients and health care providers grappling with COVID-19.
The American Psychiatric Association reports more than half of workers are concerned about discussing mental health issues in the workplace; while more than a third worry about consequences if they seek help. But if we as health care providers are going to care for the most vulnerable in our community, we need to be able to support each other.
To be successful caregivers in the age of the coronavirus pandemic we must have more empathy for each other, and our patients. We need to truly understand what they are going through physically and especially, mentally. Keeping patients connected with their loved ones and their support system through voice calls or video conferencing can elevate their spirits and make their healing journey a success.
As a healthcare leader, anytime you see it from a patient’s eyes you’re always going to have better outcomes. It’s more important than ever to embrace the human element of providing care.
After nearly two weeks in quarantine it is the one thing that enabled me to get through this experience the most. I’m grateful to my health care family for being there and helping me through COVID-19.
The CDC reports several tips for health care providers who maintain their mental health while working on the frontline of the pandemic:
- Communicate about job stress.
- Identify factors that cause stress.
- Ask about access to mental health resources.
- Remind yourself that everyone is in uncertain times.
- Recognize you are performing a crucial role in fighting this pandemic.
- Keep a consistent daily routine when possible.
- Try to get adequate sleep.
- Make time to eat healthy meals.
- Get exercise when you can. Spend time outdoors.
- Take breaks from news stories, including social media.
- Engage in breathing exercises or meditation.
Mental Health America has also compiled a list of useful meatal health resources for COVID-19 patients, families and health care workers. Read more here.
Don Stookey, CHESP, is an experienced consultant with expertise in budgeting, operations management, management, customer service, and business development for the hospital & health care industry. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.