Since May is Trauma Awareness Month, it only seems right to examine the trauma essential workers are experiencing as they navigate their jobs during this coronavirus outbreak. As states are beginning to relax restrictions to get the economy moving, many of those on the frontlines are going to experience post-traumatic stress from the trauma of what they have endured in the trenches during this fight. I fear there will be more cases like Dr. Lorna Breen, who took her own life after treating many patients with COVID-19 and gradually contracting and recovering from the virus herself. This is trauma to the Nth degree.
Make no mistake, working people who are deemed essential—especially, but not exclusively, those treating medical patients—have been, and continue to be, in a war zone. Let’s just consider an average day: They wake up, typically without adequate rest and perhaps plagued by nightmares, to start their daily horror all over again. They get in their car and drive to work, where they likely need to submit to temperature checks to determine if they can go inside the hospital to serve their patients. Then they would need to dress again in clean scrubs and the N-95 masks that have been rubbing the skin off their faces, if they are lucky enough to have an N-95 mask. Others will put on the paper masks that are known to be insufficient protection against the virus. Then, they get to go about their various tasks, not the least of which is tending to the patients who are sick and dying with COVID-19. This is what the medics, nurses, and doctors are saying in their own words.
This is tedious, draining work. There are too many people and not enough resources. People are dying. Tough decisions must be made. Many dying patients have no one at their bedside as families are not permitted to visit and many hospital staffs are spread thin. However, there have been reports of medical personnel sitting at the bedside of patients as they die so they don’t have to die alone. Can you even imagine sitting with a stranger at the time of their death? I have been with two people at the moment of their deaths, but one was my husband and the other a foster child I had worked with. It is an honor and an incredibly intimate experience. I can’t begin to imagine how draining it would be to do that over and over, day in and day out, with someone you only know as a patient, feeling powerless to do anything about it, except to honor the moment.
Then comes the time to go home, which offers a series of hoops for many medical personnel. Some shower at work and change from their work scrubs into clean scrubs to go home—if they even get to go home and aren’t sleeping elsewhere. When they get home, some must strip outside their doors, leaving the clothes and shoes they traveled home in outside; then they shower again before greeting their families. These are the logistics—the facts many face in this new normal. Additionally, there is all the stress of wondering about their family while they are working. Do they have what they need? Are their children all right now that they are out of school? Is their spouse or partner home, holding down the fort, or are they also an essential worker in harm’s way every day? Will what they do for work end up infecting them, or worse, their loved ones?
The constant stress of doing one’s job, knowing that the slightest thing could happen and infect them. Most medical workers will know of at least one other medical worker who has died from COVID-19, so this is an all-too-real reality for them, not just a far-out possibility.
Add to that the protesters who are pushing to get back to work, blaming the media for blowing this pandemic out of proportion and accusing medical personnel of being actors. Despite putting themselves on the line for the public good, there are those community members who are rude and, at times, downright aggressive. This is the thanks these hard-working medical professionals are getting. It’s all very confusing, tragic and out of everyone’s control. This is traumatic and qualifies as trauma.
And this is just the medical workers. There are the people working in stores deemed essential who must deal with customers touching everything and scoffing at safety measures. Many restaurants started curbside and home delivery, exposing food workers to potential infectors every day. There are mail carriers who deliver to people’s houses every day; they hope for contactless delivery but there are people who just want to speak a little too close or even need to sign for deliveries. There’s just so much anxiety around the possibility of contracting COVID-19—whether it’s a reasonable fear or not doesn’t matter. Many people have excessive anxiety around this and that creates stress. The pandemic coming to an end doesn’t mean the stress will abate. People are still going to view other people as potential death sentences and will fear leaving their homes; this is a symptom of being on high alert for too long.
Post-traumatic stress is about remembering the incident with the same emotional intensity you experienced during the event. When you feel extreme fear and push through to function through it, that fear needs expression and release later. That strong fear also solidifies the memory. This is the stuff nightmares and flashbacks are made of. It is normal!
The solution is to find a way to honor your experience. Know you didn’t choose this trauma; it was thrust on you by virtue of your chosen profession. Focus on the good you did, even for those you couldn’t save. Whenever you remember an event where you felt helpless, come back to the present moment and remember what you control now. When you second-guess decisions you made, forgive yourself and remember the past is always clearer with hindsight vision. You did the best you knew how in the situation you were in at that time. If you could have done better, you would have. Do not judge your actions in a past moment by the standards of today’s moment. They are worlds apart. Rest in the knowledge that you did the best you could have and focus on doing your best now and moving forward. Face today with the same courage you used to go through the war and know that nothing that can happen today will be as bad as that.
When you are ready, you can even begin to look for the G.L.O.W. in your trauma: gifts, lessons, opportunities and wisdom that can be culled from the experience. However horrible the trauma was, there is equal positivity when you are ready to find it. That is part of the Universal Law of Balance. Finding the G.L.O.W. is often the work of grief, and you are, in fact, grieving the loss of your post-trauma self. The good news is, that person isn’t gone; you just need to find him or her again.
And if you struggle to do the things in the previous paragraphs, that’s all right, too. You may not be ready. If you think you need professional help, please seek out someone who will not pathologize what you are experiencing. Remember, what is happening is normal and you just need to learn some new coping skills to help you put your trauma in its proper place. Honor it as part of your history but know it doesn’t define you and hasn’t broken you. You got this!