By Carol Wolfenbarger, MSN, RN, FACHE
Our country is now beginning to emerge from a reality we couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic happened at lightning speed, and there was understandably, confusion and chaos in the early days, and fear and grief as the virus heavily impacted our communities. The pandemic has been — and continues to be — a traumatic event, despite the fact that the vaccines are opening up our lives in wonderful ways. This experience is not unlike a natural disaster or wartime, and it’s important to think about how we will all recover and build our emotional resilience going forward.
That said, all of us, whether we are healthcare providers or not, are looking at how to reenter a world that is forever changed. Especially in healthcare, we have the opportunity to ensure we intentionally focus on how we relaunch and heal — emotionally, physically, and socially. As we celebrate National Nurses Week, National Hospital Week, and National EMS Week in May, we should not underestimate the effects that the pandemic has had on our huge-hearted professionals, all of whom were asked to learn many complex new care protocols, become even more adept at juggling priorities, and consider their families’ safety as they cared for our community. In short, healthcare workers had to learn an entirely new choreography for the intricate dance that is healthcare, in no time flat. I know that you will join me in thanking each of them this month for the wonderful care and service provided to our community during this pandemic. You are forever our heroes.
As part of the healing process, I wanted to tap into the talented Tiffany Bush, who is our knowledgeable Behavioral Health Specialist with MHM’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Program, to offer all of us comforting advice about easing back into post-pandemic life.
“This past year has been a hugely trying, uncomfortable, and stressful time for everyone,” she says. “As a society, we’ve never experienced such severe restrictions on life as we know it. This included the physical restrictions of limiting where we go and wearing masks when we do leave our homes, to social restrictions, like being unable to participate in indoor gatherings and basically being in lockdown mode.” She notes that many of our coping mechanisms, from “retail therapy” to enjoying coffee with a friend became impossible to do, and as a result, our anxiety levels may have skyrocketed.
“With routines disrupted and escalating worries about our own health and the health of our loved ones, we felt a significant loss of control, and the increased anxiety that accompanies it,” continues Bush. “And let’s face it, we’re lucky to have video calling capabilities, but a Zoom call can’t fully replace a face-to-face interaction, and technology exposed our homes to the world-at-large, making many feel like their sanctuaries were on display. And for people who might not have access to a computer, the feelings of isolation increased.”
As we introduce ourselves back into a “new normal,” Bush says, we may feel unexpectedly anxious about being in a crowd or leaving our homes, have a hard time keeping up with and feeling overwhelmed by COVID-related news updates on so many platforms, and fret about our health. “For example, you might have allergy symptoms, but worry that it’s COVID,” says Bush. “People may also experience symptoms of depression, including a lack of energy or apathy about things you’ve enjoyed in the past.”
Bush recommends, first and foremost, that we do not discount the unprecedented event that we are living through and recovering from. “There’s no manual about how to do this,” she says, adding that “practicing good self-care, like limiting your social media and overall screen time, saying ‘no’ when you don’t have the energy or desire to do something, and doing things that comfort you, like lighting a scented candle, enjoying your pet, listening to calming music, or simply sitting in the sun — can really help.”
Great words of advice for all of us to reflect on and practice as we move through our recovery. My hope for our health care teams who are well-qualified and trained to handle this pandemic — nurses, support teams, physicians, providers, the emergency management team, the health department, EMS —is that you recognize how wonderfully you contributed to the response and health of our community; that you recognize the need to reflect on this event and the impact on you personally; that you hear how very much we celebrate your expertise and service; and that you hear the applause of your organization and community for a job well done. We are celebrating you!
Carol Wolfenbarger, MSN, RN, FACHE, is Chief Executive Officer of Mission Hospital McDowell. She holds both Bachelors and Masters of Science degrees in nursing administration from the University of Tennessee, is board certified in Healthcare Management and is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE). Carol, who has served hospitals and health systems for more than three decades, has worked to add full-time cardiology services, led growth in outpatient services including imaging and surgery, and the expansion of primary care offering in Burke County since assuming her role as President at McDowell Hospital in 2015. She is an active member in Rotary and serves as a Board member for the Rutherford/Polk/McDowell Health District Board of Directors, the Corpening YMCA Board of Directors, and the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.