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Pandemic trauma counseling for nurses parallels combat veterans

Nurse Trauma Counseling
Posted at 8:58 AM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 10:58:30-05

CHICAGO — Two years into the pandemic is taking a major psychological toll on frontline health care workers.

One hospital chaplain, who is an Army veteran, says what nurses are saying mirrors what he’s heard from combat veterans. So, he and a colleague began to implement the same kind of counseling used for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

For registered nurse Catherine King, this year has felt the same as the last two.

“We just had another surge, and our floor was full. We had to go to other floors for COVID, too,” she said.

Like thousands of frontline workers, King focuses on the task at hand: caring for patients one day at a time, hoping for a reprieve that has not come.

“More people going to the ICU and more people not coming out of the ICU and seeing more names on that list of people who had passed away,” said King, who felt a breaking point months into the pandemic. “Mine was kind of that year mark and then everything kind of came tumbling down and everything I had to process at once. And it was too much, too much to process."

The U.S. death toll from COVID is nearing 900,000. More than 3,500 healthcare workers have also lost their lives.

“It's definitely taking a toll and it's definitely something that we carry home,” said King. “And you can only get through so much fighting and kind of putting up that shield and whatnot for so long until kind of falls away.”

“To me, it was very analogous to what combat troops go through,” said Mark Schimmelpfennig a Rush University Medical Center chaplain and former U.S. Army veteran. “They were fighting a war against an enemy we couldn't see feel touch hear, taste.”

Partnering with hospital bereavement specialist Kim Sangster, they started a program called Growing Forward.

“We just knew we had to do more,” said Sangster. “We had staff saying we need more than wellness rounds, so we knew that we needed to do some post-traumatic stress work.”

That work uses similar techniques engaged in by veterans combatting trauma, including group counseling sessions brought to nurses and other hospital staff directly in their wards.

“It was really critical that we didn't approach people like they were broken, right? They're the resilient ones. They're still here. They're still standing,” said Sangster.

Just over a year into the pandemic, a survey from the Yale School of Public Health found that 22% of U.S. health care workers had developed probable post-traumatic stress disorder.

And new research out of the U.K. has added even more credence to the notion that hospital workers are experiencing stress levels that parallel those of soldiers in a warzone.

“One of the big things that we were able to provide was, ‘There's no stigma here. OK, you’re a human being. You've been through hell. And we're here to help you,’” said Schimmelpfennig.

Help for nurses like Catherine King, those words of acknowledgment of trauma have been therapeutic.

“It feels crazy to be compared to a war veteran who is going through PTSD,” she said. “You've experienced a trauma. You know, you have wounded morale. I think it was really nice to feel recognized and validated. I felt putting a term on it could help me process and grieve and come above it.”

It was another form of recognition that the tireless labor of these frontline workers does not come without a cost.