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Traumatized and worn out due to the pandemic, nurses are quitting their jobs

Unsupportive workplaces, extended shifts, lack of PPE, and the fear of bringing the virus home to their families have driven many nurses to quit their jobs.

Traumatized and worn out due to the pandemic, nurses are quitting their jobs
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ Registered nurse Jenni Knapmiller dons PPE as she prepares to care for a COVID-19 patient in the COVID unit at Sharp Coronado Hospital on December 14, 2020, in Coronado, California. (Photo by Mario Tama)

As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses across the country are exhausted, stressed out, traumatized, and essentially running on empty. Unsupportive workplaces, extended shifts, lack of PPE, and the fear of bringing the virus home to their families have driven many of them to quit their jobs. Rachel Ellsworth from Florida was one of them. Speaking to CNN, she revealed that prior to the pandemic, she felt privileged to have a career in nursing. "I was the kind of person who went into work every day, like, literally, 'Let's go save lives,' for 12 years," Ellsworth said. "I was just so excited to be there, so full of hope and compassion."




Although her commitment was tested when the novel Coronavirus reached the US, her local community's support made her feel like the sacrifices she'd made were worth it. It became worse in summer when the hospital where she worked saw a significant spike in COVID-19 patients and it became disturbingly clear that there wasn't much they could do for some of them. "We were very limited in what we could do to help them," she said. "We were losing." It all came to a head in late 2020 when a COVID-19 patient she "just adored, the sweetest guy," begged her to try any treatments that could save him. However, they'd tried everything in their power and Ellsworth had no hope to give him.




After months of chewing over the decision, Ellsworth finally quit her job in January. "It broke me," she said. "It was just too much." While the pandemic definitely made things worse, experts say it wasn't unusual for US nurses to consider quitting even before the global health crisis. "COVID has exacerbated all the problems that we know exist in a for-profit health care system," said Jean Ross, president of the National Nurses United, one of the country's largest nurses unions. Nurses were increasingly told to "do more with less," Ross added.




Pointing to the nationwide nursing shortage, employers asked nurses to cover more hospital beds, handle more patients, and work longer hours. This led to widespread burnout driving them to quit their jobs. According to a study published this month in the journal Health Policy, of the over 418,000 registered nurses who quit their jobs in 2017, more than 30 percent said they left due to burnout caused by stressful work environments and inadequate staffing. Ross revealed that many nurses feel they can't provide the best care when they're stretched so thin.




According to a survey from the American Nurses Association's Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation project found that at least 69 percent of US nurses said they agree or strongly agree that they put their patients' health and safety before their own. This selflessness isn't sustainable, said Stephanie Zerwas, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who established a free therapy program for health care workers during the pandemic. "I think a lot of nurses got into nursing to serve," she said. "Their soul is really connected to being service-driven and wanting to provide for their community. But then they're being pulled in several different directions."




Whereas nursing during pre-COVID times was demanding enough, the pandemic made things exponentially worse for nurses. Nurses and physicians had to learn on the fly about treatment and protection which Zerwas compared to "trying to build the airplane mid-freefall." Many nurses have been working nonstop since the health crisis began about a year ago and while the arrival of the vaccines has brought some hope, most nurses still feel worn down, said Zerwas. "It's this unrelenting grind," she said. "It's hard to be in the middle of that. The hallmark of pain is just that you feel like it's never going to end."




Megan Chao Smith, a nurse in Minneapolis who before the pandemic worked on an end-stage heart failure floor, quit in April after losing faith in the people leading her. "Really, you cannot be forced to choose (between) your life and your job without people having your back," she said. "I can't as an adult allow that with the kind of heart and soul I'm putting into the service that I provide." She revealed that staff at the hospital told nurses not to wear masks because it could "scare people," and that if they did have masks, they should reuse them until they fell apart. "It wasn't a feeling that anybody had our back," she said.




Zerwas believes describing nurses as "superheroes" — even if their lifesaving work can seem like a feat of heroism — takes away from the reality that they are, in fact, human. Like the rest of us, they need the support of their communities and workplaces to keep going. While there were nationwide shows of support and gratitude for frontline workers at the beginning of the pandemic, those gestures of nightly rounds of applause, thank you cards, and car parades, have largely stopped as pandemic fatigue set in, Zerwas pointed out.




She said she knows of nurses who now steer clear of social media to avoid seeing their friends share photos of themselves maskless, socializing indoors, or in a large group. "It's emotional whiplash," said Zerwas. Meanwhile, both Ellsworth and Chao Smith admitted to feeling immense guilt for quitting while the country goes through the worst health crisis it has seen in more than a century. Even months after leaving their jobs, they find it hard to shake the feeling that they broke a cardinal rule of their profession by putting themselves before their patients. Ellsworth said feels weak and inadequate for taking the step and considers the nurses who stayed, actual heroes. "These nurses -- they are stronger than me," she said. "They're doing it and I walked away."



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