Frontline health-care workers prepare for battle — and burnout

As the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 increases across the country, frontline health-care workers are preparing for what could be a long, sustained fight against a formidable foe.

Early reports, especially those coming out of Italy where the virus has affected tens of thousands, show a huge burden on the health-care system and workers as they try to give patients adequate care while protecting themselves from overwork and contracting the virus themselves.

For example, Dr. Kathleen Ross, president of Doctors of B.C., says there are already plans to support the province's frontline physicians through the crisis. 

"There are 24/7 lines set up to receive calls from physicians feeling anxious or stressed or uncertain at any time during this COVID-19 crisis," Ross said. 

In addition, health-care workers and physicians are already reaching out over a national peer-to-peer network to help one another cope with the extra workload.

"What we know is that physicians across the country are starting to band together, discuss the workload increase, make contingency plans for themselves, and form their own support groups both for work and for emotional support as we head into this crisis time," she said. 

Stefano Guidi/Getty

Tips from the front

These unprecedented pandemic conditions, which has spread to nearly every corner of the globe, are familiar territory for Trish Newport, who has worked with humanitarian non-profit Medecins Sans Frontieres since 2008. 

"It's really similar to what we live in MSF," Newport said from locked-down Geneva, where she returned Wednesday from a mission in Congo fighting its most recent Ebola epidemic

Newport has completed assignments in the most harrowing, stressful conditions — from being in refugee camps at the Syria-Lebanon border to operating clinics in Mosul, Iraq. As a result, her team has developed powerful coping mechanisms for overwhelming situations.

Submitted by Trish Newport

The strongest coping mechanism, she says, is to focus on the reason why you're working. 

"There's less stress when you know why you're doing what you're doing," she said. "Even if sometimes we have patients die, we also have patients that recover and so, it's really important when you're a frontline medical worker to take time with each patient and remember that they're a human, and remember that they have a story and a life before them and that it's important to know what that is."

Her team members also try to talk about things other than the medical crisis, taking a break to do a hobby — even if it is five minutes of yoga or chatting briefly with a family member or loved one. 

"I find really reassuring [when] people very close to me in my life sometimes send me an update of what they're doing in their life," she said. 

"Sometimes, it's like 'I went for a jog and then I made a good cup of coffee' which might sound ridiculous, but I have always loved these messages. They're a reminder of what else exists."

And with COVID-19, which could go on for weeks if not months, health-care workers will likely have to prepare for a marathon and not a sprint. Preventing burn-out becomes especially important. 

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Newport says it's crucial to take a break, even if it feels selfish.

"It's extremely hard for people because they see the needs, and they see people getting sick, and they see the need to respond and that they can be helpful. But we can't be helpful when we get really tired," she said. 

"We can get through this. It might take a long time and it might change the world. But we can do it."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.