The nurses say that going back home after duty in the COVID-19 ward adds to their stress as they are afraid they could infect their families.

Two nurses attending to a patientImage for representation | PTI
Coronavirus Coronavirus Sunday, May 23, 2021 - 13:05

“It’s been over a year since we started working in the COVID-19 ward and it has been exhausting. The staff is overworked and feel unappreciated. Many of our colleagues have gotten infected with COVID-19 and have had to report back to work without being able to take complete rest,” said Sanjay (name changed), a nurse in Bengaluru’s Victoria Hospital. “The magnitude of the second wave is much bigger than that of the first," he added

COVID-19 cases have surged in Karnataka, especially in the state capital Bengaluru, since March 2021. This had led to many hospitals in the city getting overwhelmed with patients, with no respite for the medical staff as the numbers keep steadily increasing. Medical professionals, across the board, have been complaining of burnout amidst the second wave of the pandemic. And nursing staff have said that their work has taken a toll on their mental health.

Speaking to TNM, Sanjay said that due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, nurses find themselves struggling to provide care to their patients, as one nurse has to look after at least 20-30 patients. This also means that the nurses do not get breaks during their duties, as they used to earlier. “One nurse is looking after more than 20 patients without a break. We earlier got a break after working a full week, but in the second wave we have not received any,” he said.

Losing patients also adds to the nurses' distress. “We see so many patients succumb to the virus. Some are dying because they don’t get medicines in time due to shortage,” said Sanjay. They also see their colleagues who are stationed in the COVID-19 ward get infected themselves and have to be admitted. Once recovered the nurses have to rejoin work immediately. 

A nurse from NIMHANS, Poorna (name changed) said that an anxious feeling kicks in for her days before she reports for her week-long COVID-19 duty. She said this feeling is common among her colleagues as well. “NIMHANS is not a designated COVID-19 hospital but we do COVID-19 duty for a week every month. And the worry starts setting in days before we have to report for work,” said Poorna. One of the major factors that contribute to the nursing staff’s tension is knowing they have to return home after staying in the COVID-19 ward. “The worry of infecting our families adds to the stress. I have children who are just toddlers and they cannot comprehend why they have to stay away from me when I finish my COVID-19 duty,” says Poorna. 

Coping mechanisms

Dr Manohari SM, a psychiatrist with St John’s hospital in Bengaluru pointed out that in the past year, the nurses and caregivers in hospitals have felt drained and fatigued not only because of the workload but also because of reduced contact with their friends, family and lack of familiar faces at their workplace. “Earlier, the nurses would get some time off for short tea breaks where they could chat with their friends and colleagues. This has not been possible since the pandemic began. Once they wear the PPE kit, they cannot remove it for the next couple of hours,” said Dr Manohari. She also mentioned that in the second wave the nurses are overworked. “The number of nurses are less but the patients that need looking after has increased,” said Dr Manohari, who has been counselling healthcare staff in the hospital.

Dr Manohari said that at St John’s hospital, their team has been counselling the professionals associated with the hospital and have also provided many with helpline numbers of non-governmental organisations or individuals outside the institution who are offering therapy for frontline workers. “The staff may not feel comfortable in sharing their concerns with us, so we also give them helpline numbers of people and organisations offering therapy. We also recommend that the nurses take a two-three minute break every 30 minutes and do some deep breathing before getting back to work,” she said. 

The doctor explained that deep breathing for three minutes every half hour gives similar relief as the small breaks that the nurses would take before the pandemic, and could help decrease their stress. She added that people need to reach out and share since having some interaction will help. She also added, “The times are difficult but stress does not necessarily mean everyone needs to seek professional help. People need to practice whatever helps them relax."