One year in, Portland health care workers reflect on pandemic

Employees at one of Oregon’s largest hospitals shared how this year has forever changed them.

PORTLAND, Ore. — This week marks one year since the pandemic began, and health care workers at Providence Portland Medical Center are sharing how it has forever changed them and their industry.

“It was definitely a roller coaster. It’s been a roller coaster. Yes, we’ve always known a pandemic might happen. But I don’t think any of us were prepared that it was going to happen during our lifetime,” said hospitalist Dr. Laura Kuipers.

“It was very chaotic, it was a lot of unknown,” said critical care nurse Jackie Center.

Kuipers and Center both work at Providence Portland, which cared for more than 1,100 COVID patients since the pandemic began. Both women remember the initial panic that set in and the immense stress that followed.

“We were very much learning on the job. Putting on gowns and putting on shields and helmets and things like that,” said Kuipers.

Center said many health care workers had the additional stress of wondering whether they would bring the virus home to their loved ones, and whether they would have enough personal protective equipment at work.

“Are we going to run out of ventilators? Are we going to have enough staff to do this? Are caregivers going to get sick?” said Center.

Research shows the pandemic took a profound toll on the mental health of those on the front lines.

A study by the University of Utah found more than half of health care workers are at risk for depression and insomnia. A separate study showed 76{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of health care workers report exhaustion and burnout.

“These are also parents trying to deal with kids who are home from school, but also the stress of taking care of patients who are dying, patients who don’t have their loved ones by them,” said Kuipers.

“To watch them not do well, watch them struggle, watch their family go through that struggle. We will keep a strong face, we will keep up that tough front. But we go home and we think about them, and we worry about them,” said Center, who overseas a team of critical care nurses.

Both Center and Kuipers said Providence is putting a stronger focus on mental health, especially during the pandemic. Center now encourages her team to come up with self-care plans, which she said has really helped.

“We’ve been really pushing, making sure you’re taking care of yourself,” Center said. “I’ve had anything from people saying they’re doing counseling, practicing good mental health, to making sure they take their vacations this year, because nobody has taken vacations.”

RELATED: Providence Portland has no COVID-19 patients in critical care for first time in a year

Kuipers said employees across various departments now do routine check-ins with one another. And Providence even secured a grant to help improve wellness among staff.

Many in health care feel this year has also taught the industry a lot about communicating better with patients, patients’ families and even with their own colleagues.

“Often in medicine, we get siloed into, you’re a doctor, you’re the nurse, you’re the phlebotomist, but the idea that we do work as a team and we are very intertwined as we take care of patients, especially as patients become more complex,” said Kuipers.

She said we can all expect lasting changes, like screening at hospital entrances and visitor limitations, at least for the foreseeable future.

“I anticipate as things move forward, I’m hoping we can get back to what I’m calling the ‘new normal’ of what things are going to look like in a hospital,” Kuipers said.

RELATED: COVID vaccine: Here’s where to get it in Oregon and Washington

Both Center and Kuipers said the public support this past year has been incredibly uplifting and encouraging. Especially the times neighbors cheered on their health care workers each night.

“Our sacrifice and our efforts were worth it, because we were helping our community and our community respected that and understood that,” said Kuipers.

More than anything, she said, it reminded everyone that we are all in this together.

“There is this sense of “we did this, we did this as a team,” and it does feel very good to be able to say, I was part of this,” she said.

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