I wrote my April article on sentinel events before the COVID-19 pandemic became “our” pandemic here in the United States. By early March, we, as health professionals, started to really pay attention to as much information as was available on SARS-COV-2 virus and COVID-19. So, when I was asked to write an article addressing how physicians can find support during this crisis, I was more than ready.
Explore This IssueJune 2020
For about 14 continuous days (including four call days over a weekend, doing emergency cases before testing or clarity on what PPE to use was available), I had felt increasingly overwhelmed, with no sense of control, as if I were standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls drowning from information overload and tasks that required completion yesterday.
I was not alone. One of my anesthesia colleagues who’s Italian and whose entire family lives in Italy, became extremely anxious as we saw the horrific reality unfolding there. Our advanced practitioner from Iran also shared realities from countries with the highest infection rates. Until our organization definitively cancelled all elective surgeries and clinics on March 17, there was heightened fear and anxiety among all who saw the epidemic “train” barreling down on us.
Most of us who work in hospitals and medical centers have likely shared the same experiences: daily incident command messages, constantly evolving PPE protocols, clinical practice changes, transitioning from personal to virtual meetings, social distancing while at the hospital, canceling all clinic appointments and elective surgeries. While I knew I had to focus on the logistics of getting every provider trained and transitioned to telehealth, I was also keenly aware of the catastrophic financial impact we’ll face. Learning that our specialty, patients, and case types are at highest risk due to “aerosol generating procedures” and “superspreaders” created a constant level of anxiety that I’ve never experienced before.
Then there was additional stress on the home front. It helped that the week when all hell broke loose was when Florida schools were on spring break. (In hindsight, our decision for my husband to leave a start-up company back in September has been a blessing, as we didn’t have to worry about child care.) I was so focused on work that by the time I went to the store there was no more toilet paper.
It has been the most wonderful gift being part of the Pediatric ENT Chiefs group that communicates daily by email and weekly by conference calls to leverage our collective expertise and knowledge in real time, along with our ASPO leadership and those ahead of us in the pandemic in the epicenters of Seattle and New York City. I knew I was never alone—and that’s exactly the point.
I realized that I’ve always managed my stress and anxiety best by “doing”—developing and executing a strategy, then doing more. After all, “doing” allows me to believe I’m “fixing” whatever needs to be fixed. That formula has worked for me my entire life (although at the cost of a high degree of burnout before I became self-aware). But “doing” alone wasn’t enough during a pandemic. Doing the wrong things, at the wrong time, and not doing what was needed in alignment with our hospital incident commanders and those in charge, wasn’t helpful.
How humbling it was to learn that some of my perceived “stress” in the past few weeks was really just a matter of inconvenience when compared to some of our clinical staff who are single parents without family support and worried daily about being able to work. Learning to think outside the box to ensure that I supported their needs as much as possible, as well as observing physician colleagues’ conversations, emails, and behaviors, has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own emotions, anxiety, fear, and mood, and how they affected my team and my family. It was only later that I was able to articulate to myself who I became during this early and critical phase of the pandemic—I had to in order to help others manage their emotional and mental health needs.