NEW YORK (AP) – The coronavirus shook the hospital like a hurricane. In front of a back door, half a dozen employees recently gathered to chat about their experiences and reflect.
« I’m still scared, » Dr. Gwen Hooley told colleagues at Queens County Elmhurst Hospital, which in late March was overflowed by patients as the virus raged in New York.
Physician assistant Diane Akhbari said that her husband left her food every day on the stairs leading to the basement, where she locked herself up for fear of infecting her family. « I felt like an animal, » he said in a shaky voice.
The workers spoke of the panic they felt especially at first, when they did not know if they would have enough protective equipment. About how one of them got infected and overcame the bad time, and how hard it is to see young and healthy people like them suddenly fighting for their lives. They said that many colleagues were preparing wills.
And they confessed that they are tormented by the idea that all this can be repeated.
« I feel like we’re living in calm before the storm, » said Hooley, an emergency room doctor who lost a relative killed by the virus.
While the pandemic continues, the days are past when the Elmhurst hospital constantly received patients who were unable to breathe, when respirators were scarce, and when so many people died that the bodies were placed in refrigerated morgue trucks outside the hospital.
But the trauma endures.
In hospitals around the world, nurses, doctors, and other staff are dealing with the psychological impact of the battle against the virus and with the fear of a new outbreak.
« We constantly ask ourselves whether there will be 200 people in the waiting room again on our next shift, » said Dr. Samantha LeDonne of the emergency room. « You can’t enjoy the respite or feel like things went back to normal when you have that fear permanently. »
Healthcare workers are treated like heroes, and many enjoy the good they do and teamwork. But it is exhausting and overwhelming work, even for people like them who are used to dealing with life and death situations.
A study of 1,200 Chinese hospital employees revealed that half of them reported feeling depressed and that 44% said they suffered from anxiety during the outbreak in their country. The United Nations Organization said that medical personnel endure « exceptional levels of stress » from the pandemic and that it is vital to ensure their mental health.
In places where the virus wreaked havoc, medical staff say the number of serious cases and deaths took him by surprise. They suffered from not being able to offer cures and thinking that they could catch it themselves. They mourned the deaths of relatives and colleagues and endured seeing patients suffering and dying without being able to see their loved ones because visits were prohibited.
After six years working in the intensive care unit, nurse Angelyn Bannor was used to seeing patients die. « But this was too much, » he said.
« I couldn’t stand it. It is very emotionally tough, ”said Bannor, who works at Metropolitan Hospital, another New York public hospital that treated many cases of coronavirus. Seek comfort in prayer and in phone conversations with colleagues.
While the virus is not gone, this is a time of relative calm for these workers.
« There is not so much adrenaline anymore and you wonder if what you just experienced was real, » said Eric Wei, an emergency room doctor. « We are still in an emotional recovery phase and we know there may be new outbreaks. »
Feeling overwhelmed or suffering from anxiety is not unusual when a person has a strong experience, according to psychologists. Most people get over it in a few weeks.
But there are those who believe that staff who dealt with COVID-19 patients can develop long-term and quite severe post-traumatic stress.
Living with death and feeling exposed to it multiple times in the same day can have prolonged effects, according to psychologist Paula Madrid, who works with two dozen specialists who treat sleeping problems, irritation and other reactions to the pandemic.
He says he recommends his patients treat their experiences « for what they are, something that no one is prepared for. »
That is what the Elmhurst workers try to do, who organize talks to talk about what they are experiencing like the one that happened recently due to a secondary discharge from the hospital. They also have a break room with a social worker, decorated with thank you notes. There is also a room with tributes to colleagues killed by the virus.
Some decide to take action after losing a loved one. After the death of her father and brother from the virus in her native Spain, pediatrician Pilar González organized a telephone helpline for relatives of Elmhurst patients, offering information on the status of their relatives.
Some employees do not want or are not ready to analyze the impact of the virus on them, according to Suzanne Bentley, an emergency room doctor who collaborates in efforts to offer emotional support to Elmhurst employees.
“There is a fear that if you let out all that you have inside, you will not be able to recover. The reality is that we still have to build up our courage and maintain serenity to care for the remaining patients, and also live in fear that there will be a new wave « of infections, Bentley said.
Associated Press videojournalists Ted Shaffrey and Robert Bumsted contributed to this report.