By Jennifer Discher and Pam Oatis
The call came through on a wintery afternoon nine months into the pandemic. “Our nurses are still hurting. We need to find more ways to help. Can we offer some sort of stress first aid for our healthcare staff?”
Thus, a conversation began between a nurse educator, a unit manager, an ethicist, a chaplain, and a mission leader — who all agreed that something more was needed. In the words of the nurse educator, “Taking care of our own is very close to all of our hearts.”
Healthcare has been at the forefront throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Acts of pure compassion across healthcare settings, from hospitals and physician offices, to long-term care facilities and hospices, are the fodder of Facebook and the mainstay of the human-interest segment of the nightly news. But patients, families, and members of the healthcare team experience the uncertainty and heartbreak of isolation and death. This has taken a toll on caregivers.
As a Bon Secours Mercy Health ministry, we are called to be good help, and our roots in mercy remind us that creating spaces of hospitality and kindness are fundamental for wellness. Out of those values, our group set out to address the need.
However tempting, we knew it wasn’t feasible, nor systemically helpful, for a rescue squad to swoop in and fix the heartache. Instead, we chose to introduce caregivers to tools and avenues to help take care of each other. Pragmatically, we wanted to encourage staff to notice their resources within and to be resources to each other. In other words, tap into and strengthen their own resilience.
Resilience includes vulnerability, stamina, gratitude, courage, thoughtfulness, reflection. A route to preventing and healing from burnout and stress fatigue is to teach and model resilience. Nurses are effective to themselves, each other and patients to the extent they live resiliently.
One intervention we piloted was to provide listening exchange sessions at shift change. We called these “Mini Mercy Rounds and Listening Partnerships.” We taught the process to the nurses on a unit, and then had them pair up and exchange listening time. Participants were asked to listen with respect, compassion, and confidentiality. It was not a time to judge, to offer solutions, or to fix.
The purpose is to build intentional community and to provide space where individuals find their own wisdom. As we offload, share our upsets, we think more clearly, care more deeply, respond more flexibly to every situation. We know that caregivers who learn to care for themselves are better caregivers. Teaching strategies for self-care to both pre-professional nurses and working nurses will result in better patient care.
New and veteran nurses on this pilot unit have been overwhelmed with the grief and suffering they have witnessed. They have lived days of tears and days of pure anxiety but always finding a way to move forward. On the first day of the pilot the energy was palpable. Many were surprised that this short opportunity to unload some hard emotions lightened their hearts. The first weeks beyond the pilot found them adapting the tool to the day and to their own circumstances.
When we checked in seven weeks later, the initial feedback was “oh yes, I thought that was great, I guess I forgot all about it.” However, asking deeper questions revealed a number of stories of being a listening partner to each other almost unknowingly. “I guess we’re doing this and don’t even realize we’re doing it,” said the charge nurse, smiling brightly. The best learning is incorporated to the point of not having to think about it. They have begun holding spaces for one another.
Jennifer Discher, PhD, is vice president of mission and Pam Oatis MD, is a medical ethics specialist at Mercy Health St Vincent’s Medical Center.