Families of healthcare workers strained by pandemic pressure

With over 1,000 employees at St. Mary’s Healthcare System and over 3,300 employees at Piedmont Athens Regional, thousands of families in the Athens area have felt the firsthand effects of the COVID-19 pandemic through their family members. 

Sophomore Ethan Oliver’s mother, Susan Oliver, works in badging and security at Northeast Georgia Hospital Center in Gainesville.

“She (Susan) badges all the travel doctors, travel nurses, all the doctors, everybody, so she gets to hear about everything, and she learns about everything. She sees it with her own eyes when stuff happens,” Ethan said.

Susan commutes to Gainesville at 5 a.m. and usually returns to Athens around 8 p.m., but with Ethan’s involvement over the course of the pandemic in baseball and basketball, he saw her even less.

“When she works that far away, and she’s there extra because of the pandemic, she’s not able to be involved in some of the things that go on in my life due to the pandemic and having to work extra,” Ethan said.

It isn’t news that healthcare workers worked overtime throughout the pandemic, but the effect that it has on their families is not as widely discussed. Sophomore India Collins, daughter to Mia James who works as a charge nurse in a long term care facility, is frustrated by her mom’s work schedule since the pandemic began.

“They don’t let her (James) get 24 hours off from work so it is shift after shift. I don’t know why but they’re just not giving anyone else shifts or they don’t have anyone to give shifts to,” Collins said.

The amount of time James spends at work can be exhausting, and she rarely had much time at home.

“I’ve gone from working 40-50 hours a week to 80 up to 100 due to the nurse shortage and having other nurses out with COVID,” James said. “After working 16-20 hour days I’m exhausted, and it’s truly like you come home, you take a shower, you blink your eyes and you’re back at work.”

A study conducted by Mental Health America from June to September 2020 polled 1,119 healthcare workers, highlighting their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. 82.13% of surveyed healthcare workers reported an increase in emotional exhaustion and 62.82% reported an increase in work-related dread.

“Seeing people (patients) that were alert, oriented, walked around, did their own thing, deteriorate so fast, and losing residents weekly, we were all pretty depressed. Our anxiety levels were high every day before the shift and during the shift because we never knew what we were going to face in the next shift,” James said.

Collins saw the effects of her mother’s anxieties and how her experiences changed her interactions with others.

“She got more irritated by things, and that could be because of lack of rest. I know that causes irritation,” Collins said. “Because nurses are more irritable now, that level of what they’re going through affects their communication skills, especially with people with higher authority than them, and it’s difficult because it’s hard on everybody.”

CLOSING THE DISTANCE: India Collins and her mom Mia James stand together outside of Cedar Shoals. With James’s strenuous work schedule during the heat of the pandemic, Collins and James had a hard time finding time to be together. “I’d talk to her when I could on FaceTime to see what was going on with her especially when you all were doing homeschooling but her being by herself a lot. It wasn’t it wasn’t good for her, and it was stressful, for me as well,” James said. Photo by Tory Ratajczak.

Even though Susan is not hands on with patients because of her security role, she still sees the more graphic sights in the hospital.

“In the morning I passed by the morgue and there was always a body or two waiting to go into the morgue or there was always a funeral home taking somebody out. So to come into work and have our morning meeting, the first information we get is how many people have died, what the numbers were and that there’s no beds, and people coming in that couldn’t get a bed because there was a COVID patient in the bed. So everyone was always just real nervous,” Susan said.

Ethan saw how this affected his mom and it informed him about the experiences of healthcare workers during the pandemic.

“Sometimes she would see the bodies getting carted out. Sometimes there would be a younger child, and that really drained her, that hit her heart. So she would have to take time away from everything and just kind of recoup because of what she saw, so it’s stressed her out heavily,” Ethan said.

When visitors were not allowed in facilities, nurses were the ones who were always there for patients.

“The hardest thing for me was when the residents were at the end of their life and were transitioning, their family members couldn’t be there. So we were the ones there, dressed in our PPE, holding their hands and keeping them comfortable,” James said.

Healthcare workers have been the first to receive most pandemic related information, and bring that information home to their families.

“In the last big surge, 70% of the COVID patients had been unvaccinated, so they were pushing getting vaccinated and giving a lot of information. It was good to have that information on one hand, but it probably caused stress on the other, because they’re saying ‘COVID is real’ and I was bringing that information home,” Susan said.

Family members of healthcare workers hear the first-hand experiences of what is happening in hospitals, and thus feel more informed about the realities regarding COVID-19.

“I learned about the ratio between unvaccinated deaths and vaccinated that’s in the hospitals. She had 18 patients die in one day. 15 of them were unvaccinated. So that’s an insane amount, and the other three were older,” Ethan said.

These teens had to build support systems during the pandemic to help cope with various stressors.

“One way of getting out of the house was to go play sports with friends. Sometimes that would get taken away due to COVID because people would catch it, then you have to be on a week break. That’s okay, we were still out, talking to people, making bonds, forming huge friendships,” Ethan said. “The baseball team feels like a family because they’re all I’ve been hanging around.”

Collins found support in her long distance relationship with her sister, which reassured her that she could still connect with others.

“My sister Destiny, she lives all the way in New York but we talk frequently with each other. Just knowing that I can communicate with people still is reassuring and motivates me to say ‘If I can communicate with my sister, I can communicate with anyone,’” Collins said.

She also sees how nurses are represented in media and believes they are often overlooked in their work to make hospital patients feel more comfortable with their surroundings. 

“Nurses are really important to the healthcare career field. They shouldn’t be looked down upon or considered less than a doctor or anyone else because we are depending on them, and patients wouldn’t have any sense of home without nurses there,” Collins said.

Because of their connections to the healthcare field, medical worker family members have a more direct connection with the effects of COVID-19 on patients.

“I see what COVID does to my mom, and she will come home and tell me stories about how her patients can’t even socialize with each other and they’re all alone. They can’t see their family and it just makes you more empathetic to people’s situations and more cautious about what you do,” Collins said.

Tory Ratajczak

Graduate Tory Ratajczak was the Managing Editor and Co-Copy-Editor during her fourth year with BluePrints Magazine, the 2022-2023 school year. She is pursuing a career in veterinary medicine.

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