Faith on the Frontlines: Healthcare Workers Battle Burnout with Spirituality

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Clover Stewart has spent much of the last 14 months zipping up COVID-19 casualties in body bags. At times, she has felt like one of the many living casualties of the pandemic – frontline medical workers who, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, have witnessed a lifetime’s worth of gruesome deaths in the course of a typical week. One night in March 2020, amid the frenzied efforts of the medical staff, the grim sounds of patients gasping for air, and the acrid smell of disinfectant, Stewart’s job got very personal: She recognized one of the deceased as the receptionist she and her pregnant daughter recently spoke with at a doctor’s visit.

“I prayed for sanity,” said Stewart, who works in a critical care unit in Brooklyn, New York, and credits her faith for helping her to cope. That night, immersed in death and full of anxiety that she and her daughter may have contracted the virus, Stewart received a voicemail. A fellow Jehovah’s Witness was making a special effort to check on congregants working in healthcare and to share an encouraging Bible verse.

“God was with me,” she said, as she reflected on the reassurance that God sees her tears.

In the year that has followed, spiritual focus has helped Stewart and other frontline medical workers in her religious community battle through the mental and emotional toll of the pandemic.

“What healthcare workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat,” Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the University of Utah Health Occupational Trauma Program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said in a press release from his institution.

According to a study conducted by Smith’s group, more than half of the doctors, nurses and emergency responders providing COVID-19 care could be at risk for one or more mental health problems—including acute traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.

That’s what happened for Josie Rodas, an emergency department nurse on Long Island, New York. In the early surge of the pandemic, she felt the dark shadows of depression descend.

At the time, Rodas was working on the COVID floor of her hospital. Sweating profusely under her personal protective equipment and often without time to eat, she rushed to help one patient after another. Death still won the battle most days. A few coworkers quit under the strain. At home, she slept alone out of fear of asymptomatically infecting her husband. “I was just so low,” she said.

Then her mother, who lives alone, contracted the virus. Desperate to help but needing to stay safe, Rodas constantly monitored a remote camera for the rise and fall of her mother’s chest—a sign that her mom was still breathing.

Even though Rodas dropped off meals and called throughout the day, she felt helpless. “I’m caring for these patients at work, but I can’t even care for my own mother,” she said. “That was heartbreaking.”

But, just like for Stewart, Rodas’ congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses mobilized. They sent texts, cards, called, FaceTimed, and Zoomed to help her not to give up. “Talk to God,” one friend told her. “He will help you.” With their encouragement, Rodas found respite as she continued to worship with them regularly online, joined ministry groups on Zoom, and intensified her prayers.

“If I didn’t have this spiritual association virtually, who knows?” Rodas said. “The amount of depression that has come out of this is horrible. You hear stories of other people who don’t recover. It’s comforting knowing that people care for you as an individual.”

American psychological and psychiatric associations, while not advocating or endorsing any specific religion, acknowledge a role for spirituality and religious faith in coping with distress and trauma.

Lawrence Onoda, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Mission Hills, California, noted a number of ways spirituality can help, including giving people “a positive hope and meaning toward life, comfort by looking for answers and strength from a higher power, and a collective shared experience of support and community.”

For nurse practitioner Brandy German, such support and community helped her through her own struggle with COVID-19.

“I was able to take my focus off how bad I was feeling,” she said. “I didn’t feel alone anymore.” German tested positive in late March 2020 after weeks of seeing patients with the hallmark symptoms at her clinic in Angola, Indiana. While she quarantined with a mild case, her husband soon developed severe COVID that would last months.

“I was pretty sure I gave him the virus,” German said. “I didn’t want him to know how scared I was. I felt very isolated.”

During that time, German joined virtual ministry groups almost every morning to write letters with positive Bible messages to community members. She also continued her regular schedule of meeting twice a week with her congregation online.

Filling up the spiritual “tank” has also helped counteract the emotional toll of healthcare work during the pandemic, says Adrian Barnes, a helicopter flight paramedic based out of Sacramento, California.

During his hour-long commute to and from work, he listens to uplifting religious songs and audio recordings of the scriptures on JW Library, a free Android and iOS app from Jehovah’s Witnesses featuring content also available on jw.org. “This keeps me focused and calm,” he said. “I look at it as God talking to me on my way to work and back.”

In his 24-hour shifts, he sees pain, suffering, and hopelessness. “It can be emotionally draining,” Barnes said. He recalled arriving at one facility to transport a COVID-19 patient, only to see her and all the others lying face down in their ICU hospital beds to reduce pressure on their lungs. In that surreal moment, hearing the intermittent release of pressurized air from more than a dozen ventilators, Barnes realized the merciless brutality of the pandemic.

“It was a big eye opener for me,” he said. “I can only do the best that I can. There comes a point when you have to look to someone greater for help, and that’s God.”

Although the fear in her severe COVID patients’ eyes is etched into her memory, Rodas too finds peace in the Bible’s promise that God will end sickness and pain and even bring the dead back to life. “I imagine all those patients who died, resurrected in Paradise,” she said.

When Stewart is surrounded by death inside the frigid trailer where COVID’s victims temporarily rest, she likewise recalls scriptures of comfort, peace, and hope. She never forgets to pray and be thankful for her family of faith. “God is going to get me through this,” she said.

(For more information on gaining comfort through the scriptures, please see https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/peace-happiness/real-hope-future-bible-promises/)

JW.org • Contributed

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