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Pandemic Affects Mental Health Of Frontline Health Workers


As health care workers take care of COVID-19 patients, who cares for those on the front lines? Their patients are dying quickly and often alone. Some health care workers themselves are getting infected. And since there's no protective gear for mental health, it's all taking a toll. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Bruce Schwartz practices psychiatry in the Bronx where infection rates run high; so do rates of obesity and diabetes. Therefore, its population is at especially high risk of death.

BRUCE SCHWARTZ: We're very much in the center of the epidemic.

NOGUCHI: It's like war. Everyone - every intern and nurse in training has been tapped to treat the flood of patients. And they're all coping with what Schwartz calls horrific tragedies.

SCHWARTZ: They'll be on a 12-hour shift and there's four, five, six, seven, eight deaths occurring. So it is really a very horrendous experience that no one could possibly, you know, be prepared for.

NOGUCHI: Hospital workers around the world face similar sustained trauma. The mental health aftereffects could hit them hardest. A recent study underscored the severity of those risks. It found half of Chinese health care workers who treated COVID patients earlier this year now suffer from depression. Nearly as many have anxiety and a third have insomnia. Schwartz is also president of the American Psychiatric Association. Hospitals like his are offering teletherapy for their own staff. He sums it up this way.

SCHWARTZ: After this epidemic kind of lets up, we're going to see a great deal of post-traumatic stress.

NOGUCHI: Medical professionals, in other words, will be the patients of tomorrow if they seek care. Roy Perlis is a Harvard psychiatrist who worries many won't.

ROY PERLIS: It's well known that docs don't make great patients. We feel like we should be able to take care of ourselves. Look, I'm a psychiatrist, and I don't even like psychiatrists. I think there is still an awful lot of stigma in particular in seeking help.

NOGUCHI: But Derek Villareal says he feels he needs it. He's an intensive care nurse at the Manhattan VA hospital. Basic safety gear remains in short supply, and he says staff get testy.

DEREK VILLAREAL: When the house cleaning crew comes up and asks for masks, we actually get upset. You know, we start getting defensive. It's just stuff we never had to deal with before. We start arguing with them. We start arguing with each other. We start arguing with the supervisor.

NOGUCHI: And there's lots of other drama. Not everyone gets a lifesaving ventilator. They can't clean patients of the tears and saliva that build up on their faces. On his hour-long commutes home, Vilarial is haunted by the constant stream of desperate calls from loved ones. Family cannot visit, and he has no time to comfort them.

VILLAREAL: We've been so inundated with phone calls. It's hard to talk about the death process with very concerned family members. Again, these are things that really take you away from feeling like you were a good nurse that day.

NOGUCHI: Psychologists have a name for that kind of feeling - moral injury. Sacramento ER nurse Ramona Moll feels it. She can't touch patients. They can't hear her over the loud whir of ventilators and fans. It feels impersonal and cruel.

RAMONA MOLL: You are completely separated. You almost feel like a robot because you can't communicate with them. You can't explain to them. The best you can do is with your eyes, you know, show compassion.

NOGUCHI: Moll works at the UC Davis Medical Center where, last month, she also became a patient. She contracted the virus, she believes, treating others. Alone in her hospital bed, she monitored her own breathing and lived the terror she saw in other patients.

MOLL: It's a very lonely feeling that you're going to die and you can't even say goodbye to your family. You know, I'm going to leave my daughter. I'm going to leave my husband. You know, who's going to take care of my daughter better than me?

NOGUCHI: Moll has been discharged and is recovering at home. She says morally, she feels compelled to return to work and fight alongside her exhausted colleagues. But emotionally, she says, she still struggles with the fears of reinfection and death.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.

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