Many healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients exhibit at least one PTSD symptom, study says

COVID-19 Staff Nurse Dawn Krueger
Posted at 12:36 PM, Feb 05, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Nurses and healthcare workers helping treat coronavirus patients are not just facing added stress. A new study shows those workers are facing trauma and many are already exhibiting at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s been nearly a year since the Milwaukee VA Hospital saw it’s first coronavirus patient. Dawn Krueger, a staff nurse who works in the COVID-19 unit, has been there since the beginning. Each patient is a face and a name that stays with her.

“You can’t forget them because it was something that was totally new, something we had not seen — how rapidly these patients were deteriorating,” Krueger said.

staff nurse at Milwaukee VA in the COVID-19
Dawn Krueger, staff nurse at Milwaukee VA in the COVID-19 unit, enters a patient room.

It is taking a toll on essential workers. More than 400,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and even more have been hospitalized. Mary Beth Kingston, the chief nursing officer at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee, says the past year is very different than what nurses are used to.

COVID-19 ventilator
Ventilator tubes are attached a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. California is imposing an overnight curfew on most residents as the most populous state tries to head off a surge in coronavirus cases that it fears could tax its health care system, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“We see illness and death in our jobs all the time. We're trained to care for people at all stages of their life. But our team members, our nurses are seeing more death, have seen more death over this past nine to 10 months than they have in the past,” Kingston said.

In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, during the second surge of cases, an average of nine people died a day from COVID-19.

“It's been unrelenting and I think that's the other piece. We're used to working in crisis, but some usually will have a break from that crisis. And this, in many cases, it has continued,” Kingston said.

Krueger feels the weight of being with patients at the end of their lives when their families cannot.

Nurse shares her journey working with COVID-19 patients

“That is the hardest part..they can’t say goodbye," Krueger said while wiping away tears. " might be the last face someone sees. They won’t see their loved ones. It’s the nurse. So it’s hard.”

A study published in the Journal Occupational Health, which took place in England, found half of the healthcare workers in the Intensive Care Units during June and July of 2020 reported symptoms consistent with post traumatic stress disorder. The study found that 40% reported PTSD symptoms, 11% reported severe anxiety, 7% reported problems with alcohol and 6% reported severe depression."

In Milwaukee at the VA hospital, psychologist and program manager for outpatient mental health Alison Minkin said that have seen staff members with a variety of mental health issues.

“I think some of the initial things that people reported were feelings of certainly acute stress. We had people reporting problems sleeping, people reported irritability,” said Minkin.

COVID-19 Staff Nurse Dawn Krueger
Dawn Krueger, a COVID-19 Staff Nurse at the Milwaukee VA Hospital.

The VA’s history of working with military members allowed them to anticipate the need for mental health intervention early on in the pandemic. Back in March of 2020, Minkin set up a quiet room so healthcare workers could take mental breaks. It was also staffed with therapists available to talk at a moment’s notice.

“There are so many of these feelings that go unsaid, and what that can do unfortunately is sometimes perpetuate some of the mental health symptoms that come with those feelings. So, talking about it is the first step and acknowledging it second,” Minkin said.

At Advocate Aurora Health, Kingston said the hospital is expanding a program where chaplains check in on staff members. They have also started peer to peer counseling and psychological first aid.

“What that does is that we identify individuals that are on the units. They're not external and they get additional they receive additional training in how to identify if someone needs assistance and how to connect them with resources,” Kingston said.

For Krueger, even though she knows the days can be hard, emotional and stressful on the COVID-19 unit, she does not want to stop.

“I asked to come here,” Krueger said. “Because what you are doing really matters. And I think the tightness of the group is really is important. And I think for our veterans they need the people who really want to be there who aren’t afraid to go into the rooms and just be with them. And there are a bunch of us who volunteered that want to be here every day.”

If you or anyone you know needs help during this time, even if you aren’t a healthcare worker you can call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). The CDC also has more resources that include live chats with health professionals.

This story was originally published by Rebecca Klopf on TMJ4 in Milwaukee.