COLUMBIA – Health care workers across mid-Missouri say they feel the mental and emotional strain of providing care during the pandemic, in part from compassion fatigue.
According to the National Institutes of Health, compassion fatigue can be a consequence of helping others. It shows itself through the physical, emotional and psychological stress that health care providers have experienced throughout the pandemic.
Dr. Laura Hesemann, the chief of staff at MU Health Care, said this phenomenon has become common among health care providers.
“Compassion fatigue is definitely real,” Hesemann said. “It’s something that we’re all aware of, and we have to fight it within ourselves every day.”
Hesemann said compassion fatigue hits her when caring for unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.
“I’m talking to my patients every single day, encouraging them to get vaccinated. And the two things that they say to me are that the vaccine doesn’t work, and that there are terrible side effects,” Hesemann said. “Neither of those things is true.”
MU Health Care recently added the vaccination status of inpatients to its COVID-19 data dashboard. As of Wednesday morning, 34 patients are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, and 28 of them are unvaccinated. 18 out of 20 patients in the ICU with COVID-19 are unvaccinated and 8 patients with COVID-19 are on ventilators. All of them are unvaccinated.
Hesemann said she wants people to learn from this data to protect themselves.
“We really hope it will clarify for people and help them to understand why they need to get the vaccine,” Hesemann said.
Hesemann said hearing misinformation about the vaccine from patients is disappointing for health care workers.
“When they stand by their decision to not be vaccinated, despite what is happening to them, that is so disheartening,” Hesemann said.
Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) are also among the health care workers who continue to serve at the frontline of the pandemic. Susan Hannan is one CNA who said she has experienced compassion fatigue, but in a different way.
She said her work environment at a nursing home in Tipton, Missouri dramatically changed once COVID-19 hit.
“You’re still going to get used to them and get them up,” Hannan said. “You’re going to get them dressed, you’re going to help them with their oral hygiene and getting their hair done, everything like that. What changed was the atmosphere.”
Hannan said she saw isolation impact the physical and mental health of her residents. She said these conditions made residents feel hopeless.
“COVID didn’t hit there until October, November. By then, they’d been on lockdown for six, seven, eight months,” Hannan said. “Those patients were so deteriorated from the lockdown there, by the time COVID hit, they didn’t care if it took them or not.”
Hannan said witnessing her residents suffer in isolation took a toll on her.
“It made me angry. We could walk in and out of the building. I could go home to my daughter, I could go home to my brother,” Hannan said. “These folks are stuck.”
Kayla Carter is another CNA who works at a nursing home in Columbia. She said one of the biggest tolls on her throughout the pandemic has been the fear of exposure.
“You’d be so scared,” Carter said. “Like, ‘If I mess up on changing out this PPE at all, I could possibly expose myself.’”
Carter said she was scared to bring the virus home and put her kids at risk.
“It got very tiring,” Carter said.
Carter and Hannan both have children at home. Hannan works 16-hour shifts during the week from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. After work, she goes home to be with her daughter. Hannan said her schedule, especially after a difficult shift, can be hard to deal with.
“I was done at six o’clock in the morning, and I was looking for liquor,” Hannan said. “And you have days like that, where it’s just like, ‘This is insane.’”
Carter said the added stress of caring for people during the pandemic has changed the outlook she has on her job.
“I feel like I’m not as into my job as I used to be,” Carter said. “I feel like I just don’t put my all into it.”
Hannan also said working during the pandemic has changed the way she does her job.
“I could do it more robotically and with less emotion,” Hannan said. “Part of that is what has saved me from the burnout.”
Hannan said each day is different when it comes to compassion fatigue.
“It’s situational,” Hannan said. “There are days that you come home and you feel alleviated, like, ‘Boy I did something cool. This person got it, they cared.’ And then there are days when you come back home where everything went wrong, they treat you like garbage that day and you just want to pull your hair out.”
Hesemann said interacting with patients who can be unappreciative may also heighten compassion fatigue.
“It can make providers, doctors and nurses and the therapists and everyone taking care of these patients really feel like our work is unappreciated and kind of feels a little bit less important,” Hesemann said.
Despite the challenges, Carter said she looks at her experiences as a way to find renewed passion for helping her residents.
“I feel like I’m a lot more committed because I made it through that hard time with them,” Carter said.
Carter said that although working with infected residents in COVID-19 units was difficult, it gave her a chance to connect with the people she has cared for.
“I would be back there for 12 hours, just me and them,” Carter said. “They were grateful.”
After adjusting to a new normal, Hannan said she has hope that compassion fatigue will subside as the pandemic continues.
“Because it’s been going on for so long, people are becoming conditioned to this is the way life will be forever,” Hannan said. “I think some of the stuff is getting better. Some of the mental issues are getting a little bit better.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has self-care tips and other resources available for those experiencing compassion fatigue.