COVID-19: Nurses overworked, stressed out and overflowing with care and concern for their patients

“They’re being asked to pretty much do twice as much as before, but there isn’t twice the staff,” care coordinator Kathleen Olekshy says

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During this pandemic, healthcare workers have been on the front lines, lauded as heroes but also targeted by anti-vaccine mandate protesters. Postmedia went behind the scenes and spoke with a range of Fraser Health Authority staff for this five-part series to see how they’re coping. Here is part three.

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No nurse should feel they bear sole responsibility for what COVID-19 has wrought, Kathleen Olekshy said.

They should not feel the weight of guilt on their shoulders.

But they do, and it grieves Olekshy, patient care coordinator at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster.

“A nurse came to me the other day with tears in her eyes,” she said, and Olekshy teared up herself, the pain on her face plain to see.

“Came up with tears in her eyes,” she continued. “And said to me, ‘I don’t want to feel the burden of responsibility for another’s life anymore.’”

The story speaks volumes to where nurses are at, Olekshy said.

“That nurse cares so much, it broke my heart.”

As care coordinator, Olekshy’s job is to make sure patients are getting the right doctors seeing them, a bed in the right ward, and at the right time.

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She’s in contact with other hospitals in a trading-floor type of frenzy to get patients into facilities where beds are available, and it’s her job to keep families informed.

Not least, as she assigns overworked staff to where they’re best suited in overflowing critical care units, she has her colleagues’ care in mind, too.

“They’re being asked to pretty much do twice as much as before, but there isn’t twice the staff, twice the equipment or twice the space,” Olekshy said.

As she talked over the course of an hour, she received repeated texts sent out by Fraser Health looking for people to work overtime, or as they’re called, imminent shifts. The pleas were for registered nurses to work that day in emergency, vascular and thoracic medicine, and intensive care.

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It’s a different world from the one Olekshy graduated into after completing her registered nursing degree at Douglas College 29 years ago and jobs were scarce.

She worked in several clinical wards, including orthopedics and neurology, her goal always to be a critical care nurse.

“I wanted that so badly,” Olekshy said. “I admired those nurses so much and perhaps even more now than ever before. I, too, want to make a difference in the lives of those who were so sick.”

In a hospital, critical care is an umbrella term that includes the intensive care unit (ICU), as well as cardiac surgery, high acuity and advanced life-support units.

Olekshy’s mom was a nurse — she retired in her mid-70s just before COVID-19 hit — and Olekshy could see the care and compassion with which her mother went about her calling.

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Her mom’s passion became her own and she followed down the same path.

“She was my greatest influence, for sure.”

Olekshy’s job is like keeping multiple balls in the air, making sure COVID, trauma, in-house cardiac arrest and ICU patients are looked after in real time.

But aside from juggling beds, you can compare the organized chaos inside critical care units to synchronized team events.

“If you could witness that, you would know exactly what I mean,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to have a loved one in a critical care environment, but for those who have no experience with healthcare for themselves or anyone they love, it’s very difficult to describe.”

The stress faced by all healthcare workers and the spectre of burnout are well-documented, and elevated indicators of stress are anticipated to persist long after the pandemic, according to various studies.

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“It’s difficult to sustain emotionally,” Olekshy said of the past 19 months. “We aren’t afraid of hard work, but this has far surpassed what hard work looks like.”

And since visiting restrictions were put in place, nurses have had to find new ways to communicate with families, setting up virtual meetings and video conferencing.

It’s just not the same, she said. Virtual connections are no substitute for in-person contact, and families have a hard time, a disbelief, when they get a phone call that their loved one went suddenly downhill.

“(A patient) leaves the house, perhaps their families take them to the ER department and then because of restrictive visitation that’s when they essentially say goodbye to each other,” Olekshy said.

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It’s hard for families to appreciate, then, the trajectory of an individual’s potential decline. So for them to have another phone call to say their loved one is on a mechanical ventilator or life support, Olekshy said she can’t imagine what getting that call must be like.

“‘I just saw him! He was just a bit short of breath!’ she said, projecting.

“And then, of course, to receive a call that a patient is dying, it’s a big disconnect.”

Coming tomorrow: Part 4, long-COVID care


Part 1 — Respiratory therapists see ICUs fill up with non-vaccinated patients

Part 2 — Health officers find themselves branching out because of pandemic


gordmcintyre@postmedia.com

twitter.com/gordmcintyre


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