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Virginia doctors, nurses share ‘unrelenting mental toll’ of COVID-19

Posted at 4:33 PM, Dec 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-14 18:24:13-05

RICHMOND, Va., — Virginia’s healthcare workers have witnessed firsthand the atrocities and hardships faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a dozen frontline workers across the Commonwealth opened up to Sen. Tim Kaine (D - Virginia) during a virtual discussion on Monday.

“We got to pay attention to the mental health needs of our medical workers,” Sen. Kaine said. “Long after the pandemic is over the mental health consequence is going to go on for a very long time.”

Nurses who work and care for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 revealed how their duties stretch beyond just medical care.

“We are asking them to be everything for these patients because these patients are so isolated,” Dr. Karen Door, with Valley Health in Winchester, said. “When you're everything to a patient that heavy, heavy psychological burden is just tremendous. It's a vastly expanded roll in the context of a high volume of patients in the middle of a pandemic.”

Heather Mayberry, a clinical nurse specialist at Lynchburg General Hospital, called an increase in intubations and deaths during a single shift is “emotionally exhausting.”

“They come into their shift knowing they have to serve as the patient’s whole family, but they take it on and take it on with a smile,” Mayberry explained. “They’re told not to overexpose themselves in these rooms yet they see the loneliness in these patients' eyes and all they want is for someone to be with them and hold their hands.”

A longtime nurse working in the COVID-19 unit at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon spoke about isolating themselves from their own families and communities. They spoke about helping patients on ventilators speak to their families through FaceTime for the last time.

“Usually that’s time that is private for the family, but now they’re having to stand there and subdue their tears not to interrupt that very precious time with that family,” Mayberry explained.

Dr. Rehan Qayyum, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at VCU Health Doctor, addressed the burnout in the profession that has gotten worse since the start of the pandemic.

"My two daughters asked me if I get sick what will happen to them?" he stated.

Dr. Amit Vashist, Chief Clinical Officer with Ballad Health, described the "unrelenting mental toll" of the job.

"Senator, I'm used to death. But I'm not used to so many deaths happening all in the state of several days. It’s not easy to pronounce three people on a 12 hour shift," he explained.

The healthcare professionals shared the heartache of seeing people violate COVID-19 guidelines in public, while they witness the deaths inside the hospitals.

Kaine also heard from the sister and brother-in-law of Dr. Lorna Breen, the New York City emergency medicine doctor who died by suicide in April.

The Charlottesville-native had been burdened by the numerous deaths and stress of the job, according to her family.

“This is an existing issue, this is a preexisting issue and it’s gotten so much worse,” Dr. Breen’s sister, Jennifer Breen Feist, said. “These people are working hard and they’ve worked more months and months and need our support.”

Jennifer and her husband, Corey Feist, started the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation in her honor.

Inspired by Breen’s struggle, Kaine introduced the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act over the Summer. The legislation aims to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among health care professionals.

Kaine hoped the bill will be added to a bi-partisan COVID-19 stimulus proposal currently in talks or an end-of-the-year appropriations spending bill to keep the government running.