Coronavirus battle taking toll on doctors, healthcare workers 'in the trenches.' Here's what they can do

His years as an emergency room doctor is helping Shannon Sovndal, M.D., cope with the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic.

But there’s no doubt, says Sovndal, that it is taking an emotional and physical toll on doctors and other healthcare workers. And for many, as the number of patients and the number of deaths increase nationwide, it’s only going to get worse.

Typical of emergency room staff and first responders, “there’s the company of ‘we’re in the trenches, we’re standing up to the fight.’ You can kind of rally behind that,” says Sovndal, a board-certified doctor in both emergency medicine and emergency medical services (EMS).

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“We see, in the moment, they are very good at stepping up to do what they need to do. We see that time and time again. You see it when we have these big disasters. But that being said, there’s no denying this adds an extra level of stress to our work. We think about it when we go home. We have families and kids and we wonder if we are going to get infected and if we are going to take it home,” says Sovndal, an ER doctor who is also the EMS medical director in Boulder, Colorado, and surrounding counties, where he works with multiple EMS agencies and fire departments.

Coronavirus adds another layer of stress to what is already a taxing job, evidenced by the high level of burnout for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.

Photo of doctor
Shannon Sovndal, M.D.
(Shannon Sovndal, M.D.)

In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious concern for those working in emergency services and hospitals, says Sovndal. Rates of PTSD are nearly the same for those working in the ER as for those who have been in the military, he says.

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Healthcare professionals are trained to stay calm amid chaos, says Sovndal, who just authored the book “Fragile,” which he wrote to pull back the curtain on the ER. The book is scheduled to be released in May.

“It’s about the emotional and physical toll you have being first responders and medical professionals who see death and dying on a regular basis and how that affects you,” he said.

“For me, the long game of this is that the more skilled you are, it allows you to stay calm at the job. In residency, they train us to be calm. It is part of our training. You have to be able to say, ‘I am going to be able to perform when I am under stress.’ This is the same for any athlete, any musician, any doctor,” he says.

It’s how a fighter can walk into a boxing ring or a concert pianist can go out into the spotlight on a stage and do their job, he says.

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For medical professionals, it’s about having the book smarts and knowledge they need, the technical skills such as the ability to put in a chest tube and having situational control, such as taking control of a trauma room and staying calm, he says.

In these stressful times, it's important that managers let their staff know they are part of a team.

“I let everyone know that my goal is to keep everyone working safely. My other goal is to take care of the patients. They are equal goals. I’m really worried about both,” he says.

Open communication is important. Sovndal says he wants to hear concerns if staff don’t feel safe or don’t have the right equipment.

How can healthcare workers cope with the emotional stress from the coronavirus outbreak?

Use your support system and talk about how you are feeling. “I think we’ve found the strategies to fight stress include don’t hide what you are feeling,” says Sovndal. At work, talk to your co-workers. At home, talk to friends and family. It’s similar to when there is a fire or a bad accident and there is a debriefing afterward for those involved in the trauma.

“As we joke, ‘lock it away inside my little safe, in my heart.’ I think you need to acknowledge it. That you experience stress. It’s OK to feel bad or scared. Acknowledging it reliefs some of the stress,” he says.

Have a release to help take away tension. For Sovndal it’s jiu-jitsu. He goes to martial arts classes, which he finds also releases neck and arm pain caused by stress. For other people that activity might be a bike ride, music or artwork, he says.

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Shut off the news and put away your phone and computer. It’s important for health professionals to say current with what is happening with coronavirus, but there can be an overload.

”You need to be informed but set up a plan,” he says, for instance listening to the news or checking websites every morning before you go to work.

It’s important to get away from the phone and the computer. “Clear your mind. You need to reset,” he says. “All of us need to be mindful of how much you can engage. Your mind can take so much and it does need breaks," he says, noting that checking Facebook, the news or the stock market these days can keep your heart rate high.

All of that can help medical professionals be calm when chaos is happening around them. “In the moment you can fall back on the fact that you are confident in your ability," Sovndal says.