Exhausted Healthcare Workers Keep Riding COVID Wave

First published in the Dec. 31 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

Try to imagine yourself as a doctor, nurse or staff member who is involved in treating COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Kimberly Shriner, an infectious disease and tropical medicine specialist as well as the medical director of infection prevention and control Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, described COVID-19 as “the pandemic of the millennium” because of the terrible loss of life. For those on the front lines — from doctors to staff — the pandemic just keeps coming.
“It’s like riding a wave,” Shriner said. “It crests and then there is a little lull and then the next one hits. … It’s a frightening experience.”
Sometimes things get so tense that Shriner must check in with her hospital’s physicians to give them a pep talk.

“I tell them, ‘Once more into the breach,’ and, ‘This is the winter of our discontent,’” she said, mixing quotes from Shakespeare; the first was said by Henry V in the eponymous play, while “The winter of our discontent” is from “Richard III” and was popularized more recently by John Steinbeck’s last novel.
This is indeed another discontented winter. As of Wednesday, Huntington Hospital had 43 patients with COVID-19 admitted, with eight in the ICU — the majority unvaccinated. Huntington Hospital officials noted that most children, who are being increasingly hospitalized all over the country, from this area are admitted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles or UCLA Medical Center.
Some researchers — including Shriner — said the Omicron variant may be one that focuses on multiplying rather than causing more fatalities, as opposed to the Delta strain. The efficacy of vaccines also has helped prevent more serious complications, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just curbed the days for asymptomatic patients to quarantine, from 10 days to five. This move helps gets people back into the workforce, but has aroused some controversy among doctors, who fear people might continue to spread the disease.
Some people who are thinking about becoming nurses or doctors now are turning to other related areas, such as public health, and some older nurses or doctors are deciding it is time to retire.
People sometimes talk about facing their own vulnerabilities and being inspired by the actions of their colleagues.
“COVID-19 has dramatically changed the healthcare landscape for our nurses, employees and affiliated physicians, from staffing to acquiring medical supplies,” said Gloria Sanchez-Rico, chief nurse officer and senior vice president at Huntington Hospital. “As with healthcare facilities throughout the country, staffing continues to be a challenge, particularly where we see surges of the virus.
“We’ve seen some of our staff chose to retire, many of whom have worked at Huntington for decades,” she added. “We’ve also witnessed silver linings — extraordinary moments of teamwork and acts of caring that inspire and provide support when it’s needed most. Our Huntington family is strong and resilient.”
Think about being a nurse or doctor and being the only one in the room as a COVID-19 patient dies.
“Have you ever seen a COVID patient die?” Shriner queried rhetorically. “The patient is basically suffocating.”
Emergency room nurse Joyce Roque — a graduate of South Pasadena High School — said that the experience has affected her and her colleagues in “profound ways.”
“We too are parents, spouses, etcetera, who are aware and concerned about the risks we are taking with regular exposure to this virus and then going home to our families,” she said. “There is also a lot of emotional trauma from seeing so much suffering from COVID and it is of utmost importance for all of us to be more aware to practice self-care on our days off.”
Kris Maines, who grew up in South Pasadena and achieved her dream of working at Huntington Hospital, was a bedside nurse with all medical COVID-19 patients for the first year of the pandemic and is now an acute psychiatric nurse.
“While the uncertainty provided by wave after wave of variants does little to ease our minds, I believe this new focus on overall health and mental health more specifically will have a positive effect on each healthcare worker, our community and the nation as a whole,” he said.
Maines said the pandemic has taught him that he, too, is vulnerable and that he needs to be healthy before he can ensure the wellness of his patients. He applauds the increased conversation about mental health and said it is a movement toward a more “compassionate society.”
“It is like the analogy of when you are on a plane: it is imperative to put one’s oxygen mask on before helping others to put theirs on,” Maines said. “I am no good to anyone when I am sick; therefore, I need to prioritize eating better, exercising and de-stressing in my life to have the most effective practice.”
Sanchez-Rico noted that Huntington has developed a support program for caregivers with resources to help them cope with working through this ongoing pandemic.
“We are reassuring them that it’s OK not to be OK,” she said. “No one could have possibly imagined they would be experiencing a pandemic of this magnitude during their careers.”
Roque said that self-care has become an important part of her life.
“My forms of self-care include kickboxing, volunteering for a senior dog rescue, a lot of good quality time with my friends and girlfriends and vegging out in front of my TV watching ‘60 Minutes’ with my English bulldog, Winston,” she said.
The pandemic, Roque said, has taught her that she is resilient.
“I transitioned into a leadership role within the department at the height of the first COVID wave and learning how to efficiently and safely care for the community in that state has allowed me to grow tremendously in a professional sense,” Roque said. “I also try to be more mindful and empathetic of my colleagues’ experiences at work and honor their efforts, which has made me a better friend.”
She said that she has been inspired by her co-workers.
“It is important that I acknowledge the incredible work our entire team in the emergency department does — day in and day out,” Roque said. “We are also heavily supported from our management and administrative team who have traded their suits for scrubs, without hesitation, during our time of need.”
Shriner, who is also on the frontlines against HIV and AIDS, recalls the signs that went up around the country in support of healthcare workers during the first wave of the pandemic. Now would be a good time to bring them back out and to show frontline responders that they are still remembered and appreciated as much as before, she said.
“Everyone is so darn tired,” Shriner said. “It’s really important to remember how hard they are working — everyone from the doctors to the janitorial staff.”
Interviewees wanted to implore people to get vaccinated and to get a booster, since so many of those they see die did not take advantage of medical advances. She said that families now appear more “on edge” as they await the outcomes of their loved ones.
“It’s baffling to me,” Shriner said. “People will get a tetanus shot when they step on a nail, but they will not get the vaccine. It’s not for me to judge, but it perplexes me.”
Maines, like everyone interviewed, wants people to be up on their shots, but he also has another message — this one of hope.
“For those who need to hear it, this is not forever, regardless of how it may feel,” he said. “We may or may not be through the thick of it yet, but we’ve come very far, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our industry, and if anything can be gleaned from this global tragedy, it is a new focus on what matters and what’s important.”

Editor’s Note: Shriner said that the Huntington Hospital website is an excellent source of information on COVID-19, as are those of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Watch for more about Shriner and her career in next week’s Around Town.