Faith on the frontlines: Healthcare workers battle burnout with spirituality
Published 1:59 am Sunday, February 6, 2022
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.
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“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 the presence of 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, maintaining a spiritual focus has enabled Stewart and other frontline medical workers in her religious community to battle through the mental and emotional toll of the pandemic.
“What healthcare workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat,” according to Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the University of Utah Health Occupational Trauma Program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
A study conducted by Smith’s group concluded that 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.
Toledo, Ohio, nurse Julian Bumpus-Barnett helped care for the first suspected COVID-19 patient in their hospital ICU.
“The pandemic definitely affected the way we operated in the ICU. We didn’t know what to expect. Protocols changed. There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of fear. It was definitely stressful,” he said.
“By the time patients reached ICU, we would exhaust resources caring for them and they wouldn’t make it. They were leaving in body bags. It felt hopeless at times like ‘nothing we do matters.’ It is hard emotionally and mentally, and takes a physical toll.
“We weren’t created to see that much death,” he concludes.
Bumpus-Barnett found comfort through the updates and information on JW.org.
“Jehovah’s organization takes such good care of us. Every featured article on JW.org was always ‘right on time’. Topics covered burnout, anxiety, stress in the workplace, work/home life. I would read the articles and look up the Scriptures. It’s an invaluable resource.”
Music is also a source of comfort. “Our original songs are a mood stabilizer. The lyrics are so good. For example, “hope is an anchor” expresses it perfectly. Our hope keeps us steady through the storms of life. Focusing on hope and my relationship with Jehovah helps me see past problems and put everything in perspective. I know his promises are true.”
Instead of keeping the comfort to himself, he shared it with coworkers.
“Comforting my coworkers helped me. Sharing hope with them took the focus off myself.”
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 self-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.
When Stewart is surrounded by death inside the frigid trailer where COVID 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/)