For hospital workers, a fourth wave of COVID-19 means the fourth time they'll be dealing with not just a surge in cases, but also heartbroken families, the death of their patients and the resulting mental health struggles.
Houston Public Media spoke with Avery Taylor, the managing nurse at Houston Methodist's highly infectious disease unit, about whether the current surge of infections feels different from previous ones.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is it like in the hospital now?
You know, the first couple rounds, it was chaotic and frantic, but there was a lot of energy from health care providers. We felt like this was really meaningful work that we were doing. These people needed our help. That’s not the feeling this time around. This time around feels like we’re walking into a cave of needless suffering. These patients don’t need to be in hospital beds. We have a magic bullet and we’re not taking it.
Are you saying that because the majority of people ending up in the hospital now for COVID are unvaccinated?
Yeah, so that’s the really hard part about this. As health care providers, we’ve recommended everybody in our life get vaccinated. The statistics don’t lie — 98% of patients in Methodist hospitals right now are not vaccinated.
With you and your team of nurses, what is the general attitude in your unit now?
So general attitude is of frustration. You know, obviously we got into health care to take care of people, we want to help people, but we’re having to do some mental gymnastics to really dig down and find our compassion right now.
I feel very committed that any patient that ends up in our beds, we are going to take care of and take care of well. But I spent Sunday at church just crying through the service because I’m so sad, and I’m so frustrated, that there are going to be people who suffer and die when they don’t have to. And I don’t know, at this point, what else to say or how to appeal to people’s emotions or their logical brains to change their minds and to get vaccinated.
I honestly was in denial. Like all of last week, even as I’ve been hiring nurses and opening the second unit, I was thinking, “Oh, it’s just a spike from Fourth of July. Surely this is not what we’re doing again.” And each day the numbers went up and went up. I guess denial is a great coping mechanism because I finally realized, “oh gosh, like we’re really doing this again.”
What are you doing to take care of yourself? What are people in your unit doing to take care of each other?
This week’s been pretty busy. I can’t say that I’ve done a very good job taking care of myself. But overall, a lot of my staff has started going to therapy, including me. It is not unusual for my staff to say something like, “well, my therapist says,” which I think is great. We’re also reading books together. We have a book — the title is “The Four Agreement.” Reading together has calmed a lot of anxiety, it’s brought us a lot of peace, like it’s helped us communicate with each other better, so that’s been nice.
Even with all these efforts to normalize taking care of your mental health and talk about it, do you feel like it’s made a measurable change? Or do you feel like even that’s not enough?
It’s only enough if you use it. But I know my nurses are hurting. I know that I’m hurting. We don’t want to do this again. But I think my biggest concern is like, at what cost? And I don’t think anybody has answers for that yet. I think only time is going to tell us how many nurses end up leaving the profession. I want to think that it’s not going to be anybody, but I’m sure that that will end up happening.