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5 Frontline Workers Reveal How They Find Calm Amid Coronavirus

By Steve Calechman
April 07, 2021

For healthcare workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an ever-changing landscape of protocols, safety measures, and personal protective equipment. And, underlying everything, is the uncertainty of how the virus behaves and how long it will last.

We talked to five people on the frontlines from across the U.S. about what they’re facing. They all have their own stressors in and out of work, but they’ve also all found ways to manage and reframe their anxieties in order to keep doing their jobs and providing care for their patients.

Here are their stories.

Kipp Shipley, D.N.P. (Doctor of Nursing Practice), 35, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville

Shipley is a nurse in the COVID-19 critical care unit. As the days and workload have gone on, what’s hit him most is the loneliness that patients experience because their loved ones can’t be with them. When he asks questions about care, patients will give answers, but he can see their hesitation because they don’t have any support person to consult. “There’s a fear,” he says.

He and his wife, who is also a nurse, have an 8-month-old son, so they’ve had to discuss what caretaking plans would be if they were both to become sick. To help mitigate the exposure risk, Shipley sticks to a routine. Before heading to work, he changes clothes in his garage. Once there, he changes into his hospital uniform and a second pair of shoes. Before he leaves, he showers, gets back into the older clothes, then takes them off in his garage before going into his house.

Shipley credits regular talks with his wife for helping to ease his stress. He also says he speaks with his colleagues now more than ever before, which helps him not compartmentalize. “Mentally, I get rid of things,” he says. When not at work, “it’s easy to get sucked back in,” he says. To create a boundary, he turns his attention to cooking and growing food in his garden, and also to drone photography. “I can do it in the middle of a field by myself,” he says. “It’s complex and tangible, but part of the appeal is that it’s far from consequential.”

Meghan McGrath, M.D., 48, Boston Medical Center, Boston

As an emergency room physician, McGrath is used to working in a hectic environment, but, she admits, the coronavirus is on a whole new level. “The condition is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” says McGrath. “It sneaks in on you with every patient.” One patient could come in with respiratory issues and not have the virus, while another may come in for a sprained ankle and have coronavirus. What’s particularly difficult is the all-encompassing nature of COVID-19. “It’s with you from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed,” she says. “It never leaves, it never stops hurting you.” Adding to her worry are her concerns about bringing the virus home to her two sons and about passing it along to a neighbor if she takes a walk or just goes to fill up her car with gas.

To help alleviate the stress, McGrath started her own COVID-19 “silver linings list” of things for which she’s grateful, which she keeps on her refrigerator. It includes the neighbor who leaves her daffodils in spaghetti sauce jars; the thank-you cards dropped off for staffers that she tapes up around the emergency room; and the resident who’s designing a new face mask. McGrath admits that when the pandemic first hit, she felt overwhelmed, dark, and helpless. The “silver linings list” has given her a different focus. “It makes me remember it’s not all terrible,” she says. “No one knows how to live in a pandemic. We’re doing the best we can.”

Donald Ford, M.D., 59, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland

Since the outbreak, Ford has split his time between his family medicine practice and managing the support of infected hospital employees. While his total hours haven’t changed, the rhythm of his day has a more emergency-room feel. “When things happen, you have to be able to react,” he says. And while Ford is used to dealing with patients with terminal conditions, the coronavirus is different. “This takes you to a place of emotional uncertainty and that’s hard,” he says.

To maintain his balance, Ford reminds himself that, “I do best knowing that I’m useful. That’s what makes me feel good, helping others.” It’s particularly beneficial in the face of new guidelines, procedures, and systems that can feel overwhelming. A particular frustration the pandemic has brought is not always knowing the answer. He counteracts that by being honest with patients and colleagues. It creates an exchange of ideas, he says, “then the conversation becomes much easier.”

Alexandra Carnahan, R.N., 26, Houston Methodist Hospital, Houston

For Carnahan, a nurse in the COVID-19 intensive care unit, safety has always been paramount, but now it’s even more crucial. Her roommate, a long-time friend, moved back home to Austin, Texas for the time being because of the increased exposure risk; and, since the outbreak, Carnahan has not been able to visit her family or her boyfriend who lives down the street. “The isolation has been hard,” she says.

The hospital created a serenity room with music, tea and chairs with back massagers, and Carnahan tries to take breaks there for lunch or to chat with colleagues as often as she can. Outside of work, she works on puzzles to keep her hands and mind occupied. Going out for walks with colleagues helps her offload her stress. She and her co-workers were already close, Carnahan notes, but now they can support each other without having to explain much. “Walking and talking feels like it can solve all your problems,” she says.

Tony Amberg, R.N., 57, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago

Since the pandemic began, Amberg, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, has been helping the nursing staff better understand their patients’ needs. “Psych gets everybody because this affects everybody,” he says. The ongoing crisis has made his job particularly challenging since, in order for him to be most effective at his job, his patients need to feel safe and the staff needs to stay in the moment.

What’s helped him stay present is yoga. While he already practiced several times a week, Amberg says now yoga has taken on added meaning as “a practice that can help support me.” At home, he’s stepped up his cleaning and cooking. The former gives him a sense of control; the latter allows him to “create some beauty.” What’s also helped him is thinking about his mother, who was a nurse in the 1940s. Amberg says her memory serves as a reminder that he’s part of a profession that has always handled problems regardless of the obstacles. “I feel so grateful that a 57-year-old guy has a place that’s meaningful to people,” he says.

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