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Nurses are burnt out and leaving: the workers who stayed say they need the public’s help

Rebecca White/SPR

Nurses in hospital systems across the country are facing the most stressful time in their careers after treating COVID-19 patients for more than a year. Many are leaving the field, and those who plan to stay are urging people to take basic health precautions.

Spokane Public Radio spoke to several healthcare workers, including two on the front lines in Spokane.Marye Fuqua thought she knew what she was getting into when she chose a career in nursing. Fuqua is a second-generation nurse at the Providence Sacred Heart ICU. Her mother worked there for 40-years.

She says even with that preparation, the last year and a half has been harder than she imagined.

“I think this is what we were called to do, just on a bigger scale,” Fuqua said. “The politics, the fighting and the divisiveness, that’s not what I thought nursing was supposed to be.”

Fuqua, and fellow ICU nurse Jordan Freer spoke with me in the hospital’s meditation garden. Freer says normally, working with a team of nurses keeps the stress and work manageable. He says that’s also been getting harder.

“Usually people are fighting to get into the ICU, and now we even see trouble trying to fill our staffing positions,” Freer said. “We’ve had multiple positions that have been open for months, just trying to get people to come down. But I think they’ve seen what we’ve been going through, and they don’t want to go through it.”

Freer was speaking after a 12-hour shift on the ICU. He says because of the shrinking staff numbers, some days he’s been working 16-hour shifts.

Denise Smart, the director of Washington State University’s masters of nursing program, studied how nurses were handling the COVID workload last year.

She says caring for coronavirus patients requires far more resources than many other illnesses. For example, six healthcare workers are required to help turn a seriously ill COVID patient. And hospitals are struggling to keep the workers they need to do that.

Smart also says new nursing graduates aren’t staying in the field, and experienced nurses who are close to retirement are leaving early.

“Many nurses that are working in the hospitals are reporting that they can be six or eight staff short per a shift, per a shift,” Smart said. “So, the implications are that hospitals have to delay, or post pones those elective surgeries in 2021 for different reasons than they did in 2020.”

Hostility is also an issue nursing staff are now facing. Dan Getz, chief medical officer at Providence Sacred Heart, says health care workers sometimes struggle to deal with the patients they’re tasked with treating.

“There’s just some people that are passionately against how we’re treating this disease and even though we’re using current best evidence and practice and our mortality rates continue to improve since the beginning of the pandemic,” Getz said. “I would implore patients and they’re families, particular the families, when we’re caring for your loved one with COVID, please be nice to us, be nice to our healthcare team.”

Fuqua says one of the hardest parts of the last year and a half is watching people becoming seriously ill, and die of a preventable disease.

She says she has friends who are against the vaccine and she hopes they, and others who are at risk, change their minds.

“Whether you are unvaccinated, or vaccinated, I will take care of you, I will love you like you are my own family,” Fuqua said.

“But you will lose a lot of your freedoms when you come here. It’s not because we don’t want you to have them, it’s because we have to do everything we can to keep you alive. To keep you alive,  you lose those choices because you have to be sedated, you have to be in some cases paralyzed, you have to be in some cases on your face for 16 hours to help with your lung compliance, and you don’t get a lot of say during those times. I don’t think a lot of people understand that’s what the treatment is. That’s the last-ditch effort, you fading away for three months.”

Providence, and most other hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, have delayed all non-emergency procedures due to high COVID volumes. Hospitalizations across Washington State are going down, but they’re falling more slowly in Eastern Washington.

Hospitals are reporting that the vast majority of their COVID patients are unvaccinated – as has been the case throughout the latest surge of this pandemic.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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