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Pandemic Stress And Front-Line Medical Workers

Courtesy: Merima Sestovic
Merima Sestovic, an infection preventionist at Stamford Health

Daily COVID-19 infection rates have been soaring, setting record highs in states nationwide.

Months into the pandemic, we’re exhausted and stressed. Coronavirus and our mental health is the topic of a new CPTV special, Cutline, airing Thursday, Nov. 19th at 8pm.

The show is hosted by Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson. She’s been reporting on the toll the pandemic is taking on our collective mental health. She spoke with Morning Edition host Lori Mack about her recent conversations about stress and front-line medical workers.

Here’s an edited version of their conversation:

Mack: You did a radio series at the start of the pandemic with frontline healthcare workers..

Orson: Right, and part of what I’m doing now is circling back to hear how they’re feeling nine months in. (I spoke with) Merima Sestovic, an infection preventionist at Stamford Health in Fairfield County, obviously one of the hardest regions of the state. And when COVID hit they just didn’t have enough personal protective equipment to handle the volume of critically ill patients. She was in a position where she’d have to speak to medical workers, and after years of having trained them to follow certain protocols and practices they had to change them in the face of COVID.

Sestovic: I was out of my body. I can’t even explain that feeling. I just felt like I had chills all the time. I had this heavy feeling on my chest all the time. I have asthma too. And during this time I became so uncomfortable in my chest and so short of breath I thought I had COVID. I had asthma exacerbation, stress-induced. I’ve never had asthma exacerbation in the last 20 years. I had to be put on steroids. This was all stress-induced.

I had a family member also, a very close family member who was in hospital with COVID. Not knowing whether they were going to make it was such a burden on our family. I really don’t know. It was all a blur. I don’t like to think about it. It was just like I was in the Twilight Zone. That’s how I felt.

Mack: What’s striking to me is she’s a professional. She sees this stuff. And you can still hear the stress in her voice. What’s out there in the form of help for frontline medical workers?

Orson: One of the most interesting initiatives that I came across were the virtual Stress and Resilience Town Halls offered to Yale Health system caregivers. The idea is to create a safe space for medical workers to talk about what they’re going through.

Sometimes they’ll focus on a particular theme. One Town Hall centered around recognizing when it's important to seek mental health treatment. This is Javi Alvarado, a social worker and an Iraqi war veteran.

Alvarado: I’ll begin by saying that my personal experiences in combat led to struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. And today I can draw many parallels to my prior life as a soldier and healthcare workers, particularly over these last many months.

As a young combat medic, I was attached to a tank unit and during my tour witnessed hundreds and hundreds of casualties on the field. The concentration of death and destruction was so surreal, inconceivable. And I understood this at the time. But I convinced myself that in order to do my job, to care for others as a medic, it was important to suppress the fear and anxiety that I felt.

I sometimes worry about my colleagues here at Yale who also serve on the front lines, have shared similar experiences, and have in similar ways suppressed it. This stoicism unfortunately is not only prevalent in the military but also in healthcare.

Mack: Wow. That scene that he describes is really powerful.

Orson: Yes, and he goes on to say that his decision to accept that he’d been profoundly affected by combat and to seek counseling was directly related to people who cared enough to share their stories with him.

Mack: How do you think these conversations will inform your reporting going forward?

Orson: I did hear a fundamental theme running through many of the conversations. It’s a paradox that we’re living through right now. Because just at the moment when emotionally we really want to stay connected to family and friends and colleagues, we know intellectually that one of the best things we can do to keep ourselves safe is to maintain distance from each other. So over and over what I heard were people struggling to come to terms with this paradox, and trying to help their family members, from young children to elderly relatives, recognize and respect and navigate this moment.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Here and Now; and The World from PRX. She spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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