Despite fatigue, frontline health care workers still weathering the COVID-19 storm

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The health care workers who take care of the many people who have fallen ill or died from COVID-19 are not invincible. While they literally save lives and are there for strangers when disease threatens to end life, these workers feel exhausted and sometimes frustrated.

When we asked to do a story on frontline fatigue, both Avera and Sanford selected workers for us to interview. But our cameras weren’t allowed where patients are being treated, so some of the video you’ll see was provided by the health systems.

Kelsi Lindquist, an intensive care nurse at Avera McKennan Hospital, has seen a lot of people die of COVID-19.

“Whether it’s on my shift, but a lot of the patients that I take care of in the beginning stages of it, I come to find out that they have passed away later on, too,” Lindquist said.

She says she loves her work which can be difficult.

“I don’t think I’m burnt out, but I think using the word emotionally-drained is accurate for some days,” Lindquist said.

Matt Peterson is a nurse in a pulmonary unit for Sanford Health. Late 2020 stands out for him.

“I think last year November kind of was my peak, when we had anywhere from 100 to 150 patients all with COVID-19 in our hospital,” Peterson said. “We were stretched thin, and at that time we saw a lot of death, we saw a lot of chaos, we were always running for emergencies, we saw patients very, very critically sick.”

Trying to relax wasn’t like flipping a switch.

“At that point I would go home, and it would be a struggle to fall asleep at times,” Peterson said. “I would be very wired, I’d be very adrenaline rush, and that doesn’t really go down when you get home; it takes several hours.”

Dr. Tony Hericks is director of critical care at Avera McKennan Hospital. Lindquist likens him to “a sense of hope.”

“We have those nurses that maybe came from the operating room or post-operative recovery, that when we ask them, ‘Hey, we might need some help to step up,’ they’re like, ‘I just don’t know that I can do it anymore’ because of the death and dying and the illness that they saw,” Hericks said.

Health care can be heavy.

“We have ICU nurses that are talking about going and doing different jobs, meaning working in the obstetrics areas or things like that… The stress of the ins and outs of every day of taking care of these sick people starts to weigh on you,” Hericks said.

“Throughout the Avera system and throughout health care in general, the burnout rate we’re looking at is approximately 30 to 40%, but, know that in addition to that there is just kind of a degree of stress that affects many more coworkers,” said Dr. Kevin Post, chief medical officer for Avera Medical Group.

Post says the burnout rate before COVID was a lot lower: about 10 to 20%.

“Health care workers though are extremely resilient, so there’s many that you do not really know about or that may not complain or bring it forward, so we know many of them are suffering,” Post said. “Which is understandable. You can’t expect to come through this unchanged.”

Dan Santella: How is the team here with whom you work of first responders on the COVID-19 pandemic front lines, how are they doing mentally right now?

“You know, I’m going to be very honest with you; it is a struggle,” Hericks said. “I think there are people that probably do not want to wake up every day and come back to what they have to do because of those struggles. And it’s not all COVID, like I said. It’s heart attacks, it’s strokes, it’s pneumonia.”

Both Avera and Sanford have mental health resources for employees. Avera, for example, has the LIGHT program; it’s an acronym for learn, innovate, grow, heal and thrive.

“We have a triage intake process,” said Dr. Ashley VanDyke, who practices family medicine and obstetrics with Avera Health. “And so, there is personal one-on-one coaching, we can get them access to mental health strategies and therapies if they need.”

VanDyke practices family medicine and obstetrics. She’s also one of the LIGHT program’s leaders.

“This work is really tough, and so if they just need help with how to make their practice more efficient so they can get home to their families on time, we can help with those resources, too,” VanDyke said.

Resources in health care don’t just look like IVs or medicines for patients; they’re also emotional support for the nurses, doctors and staff who take care of these patients.

“As a nurse, we’re all relentless, we all come here,” Peterson said. “We know we have a job and a duty to do this.”

But overcoming COVID-19 also requires contributions from people who don’t work in a hospital.

“This is something that health care workers can’t fix on our own,” VanDyke said. “We really need everybody’s help. Vaccination is the one thing that we know, there is good data, there is good evidence that’s going to support it. I can’t do it alone. My partners can’t do it alone. We need the public’s help, to help us in this. And you can’t give up even though it’s long and this is exhausting.”

We want to mention this story hits close to home for Dan Santella. His sister worked in Avera McKennan’s ICU in the recent past, but she is now in graduate school. Dan’s father was a long-time physician with Avera Health and recently retired.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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