Caring for the caregivers

Caring for the caregivers

By Elissa Bass

After spending 2020 in a near-constant state of high alert, many Hartford HealthCare colleagues forgot what life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic, and needed to refocus some attention on their own physical and emotional needs. 

“The first surge was bad, but, at that time, there was all the fanfare for healthcare workers and acknowledgment of what we were doing,” said Mary Horan, director of spiritual care and integrated therapy for the East Region. “With the second surge, there came this sense of invisibility because, in addition to COVID, we had all gone back to doing our ‘regular’ jobs, and people were exhausted. Plus, there was still no getting together with friends, no vacations, just no balance in our lives.” 

Now, with many of the state’s eligible population vaccinated, “normalcy” is trying to make a comeback. How does that happen here? With kindness. 

Jeff Evans

Integrative Healthcare Specialist Carol Wright helps Ronda Drew from Food and Nutrition at Backus with a relaxation session and hand massage during a recent visit by the Time Out Cart team. 

Impossible situation 

The pandemic presented a perfect storm of stress for all 33,000 HHC colleagues. A University of Utah Health study suggests more than half of doctors, nurses and emergency responders who cared for COVID-19 patients are at risk for mental health problems like acute traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, problematic alcohol use, and insomnia. The risk is comparable to that following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. 

“As healthcare workers, we value caring for others over ourselves. In the pandemic, the need to care for others far outweighed our capacity to meet our personal needs,” said Dr. Jennifer Ferrand, HHC director of well-being. “We were completely overwhelmed and overtaxed, and it became an impossible situation.” 

There are psychological phases to a disaster and we are currently in what Dr. Ferrand called the “reconstruction phase.” 

“This is the time when we can begin to breathe, and to process and grieve the losses we’ve sustained,” she said. “This is when we can begin to recover enough energy to think about self-care.” 

And it’s needed. Pandemic-imposed isolation cost colleagues the ability to gather with friends and family for decompression, Dr. Ferrand noted. 

Continuing to take action

While the Well-Being Department provided a variety of resources for leaders and colleagues throughout the pandemic, the efforts didn’t end when the COVID census started to decline.

“We took feedback from colleagues and pivoted our approach to better address the changing needs of the organization,” Dr. Ferrand noted. “We re-organized to include support for leaders and teams, and connection to resources for self-care.”

Prioritizing excellent patient care is aligned with our values as an organization, but she added that adjusting our thinking and culture to include tools and skills of self-care will have a significant long-term impact.

“The way to honor the sacrifices made by so many people during the pandemic is to learn from the opportunities COVID presented,” Dr. Ferrand said. “One way is to commit to change. During or after a crisis, we’re in control of the care and kindness with which we treat ourselves and our colleagues.”

Time Out Cart 

Horan can attest to that. Returning to work after having COVID herself, she saw Backus and Windham hospital colleagues struggling emotionally. To help, she resuscitated a Nurses’ Week concept from a few years back — the “Time Out Cart.” 

“I had done some research and found this concept where a chaplaincy visits a unit going through a crisis and offers support,” she recalled. “I knew that, after the last surge, everyone was really starting to come apart. We needed to actively encourage them to engage in their own wellness.” 

Horan assembled a team and outfitted the cart with chocolates, mints, teas, warmed facecloths and lavender neck wraps, essential oils, scented candles and soft music. They began visiting departments, providing emotional, spiritual and physical support, and an opportunity to discuss feelings, coping mechanisms and resources. 

“Initially, everyone would say, ‘Too busy, can’t do it, don’t have time, thanks but no thanks,’” Horan said. 

Her team started alerting departments a few days in advance so people knew they were coming, and Horan asked managers to set an example by participating. It worked. 

“The response has been overwhelming,” she said of the stops made twice weekly at Backus and weekly at Windham. “One nurse said, ‘Last week after you were here, I did the rest of my shift feeling like everything was going to be alright.’” 

They’re all steps Dr. Sharon Kiely, HHC’s chief wellness officer, contribute to becoming “better than normal” after the pandemic. 

“We adjusted our approach to set HHC up for success and post-traumatic growth. To help leaders, individuals and our system recover, we began to emphasize self-care and decompression as necessary,” she said. “Healthcare workers are resilient by nature and the Well-Being Department is committed to creating a workplace culture supporting that inherent strength.” 

For resources, go to the Well-Being Department’s page on the intranet at Colleague Health and Wellness under Colleague Support on HHC Connect. 

Left: Nicole Porter gives a little massage therapy to Windham Hospital Patient Care Technician Crystal Badeau.
Right: Backus Public Safety officer Craig Getter benefits from some massage therapy from Integrative HealthCare Specialist Carol Wright.