Kerie Seelenbrandt, an emergency room nurse at Kent Hospital in Rhode Island, didn’t have much time to prepare herself, both physically and emotionally, to fight the coronavirus on the front lines when the pandemic first hit last year. She felt that no health practitioner was fully ready to handle the crisis that COVID-19 triggered.
“It was really scary in the beginning,” Seelenbrandt said. “Once we started to learn more about the virus and we acquired more [personal protective equipment (PPE)] and we had better processes, it started to ease up a little bit for us. Emotionally, it hasn’t. I mean, there’s so much that we’ve had to deal with over the past year, but I feel like we’ve come a long way and we’re finally in a good place.”
Now, after almost a year of attending COVID-19 patients and exhausting her energies over the challenges the pandemic has brought, Seelenbrandt as well as hundreds of nurses are being supported through a program from USF’s College of Nursing called “Frontline Nursing During COVID-19: A New Paradigm.”
The four-part educational seminar was launched Feb. 15 and provides strategies to cope with the difficulties brought by the pandemic and ways to stay healthy in the midst of it. The first part of the webinar is about understanding COVID-19 to help nurses strengthen their knowledge on the virus, which especially resonated with Seelenbrandt.
“I want to make sure that I have as much knowledge … about the pandemic and viruses that I can. Obviously my employer, on a daily basis, puts out all of the new updates,” Seelenbrandt said. “But … the first part of the webinar, kind of brought all of those updates together in one place. So it was easier to follow, and kind of just reinforces what you’ve learned over the past year.”
Nurses in any part of the world can access the program through USF Health’s Nursing website until Feb. 1, 2022 for free since it is funded by Florida philanthropists David Kotok and Christine Schlesinger.
The webinar will be divided into expertises, with sessions for both novice and experienced nurses. A novice nurse is someone that has less than a year of experience taking care of patients while experienced nurses have one year or more of experience in the field, according to Rayna Letourneau, assistant professor at the College of Nursing and facilitator of the program.
So far, more than 100 novices and more than 250 experienced nurses have enrolled in the program.
USF’s College of Nursing saw an opportunity to provide nurses with strategies, including staying hydrated and getting support from colleagues, to help them assist patients while also taking care of themselves, according to Letourneau. Due to the pandemic, she said nurses have been experiencing increased levels of stress, depression, anxiety and suicide risk.
“We need to address that we need to keep our nurses healthy, because if they don’t stay healthy, then they’re going to leave their jobs or leave the nursing profession,” Letourneau said.
“The ripple effect of that is going to be detrimental to the health care industry. So we saw the opportunity in the college to be able to give back to our nursing profession and give back to our community and be able to offer them some support and resources to hopefully decrease or prevent some of those negative outcomes that we’re seeing with our nurses right now.”
While patients were enduring illnesses alone since their loved ones could not visit them, nurses had to witness their isolation and were unable to replicate the support patients could have received with loved ones at their bedside. This has been one of the greatest challenges for Seelenbrandt in her job.
“I think the hardest part is dealing with patients and for them not to be able to have their family at [their] bedside when they’re really, really sick,” she said.
“Things have become a lot lighter now as far as restrictions go … but in the beginning, nobody was allowed in the room with these people that were critically ill, and in the end part of your life, you really want to be with people you love and say goodbye properly. Those things were not able to happen.”
Part of the program is aimed at teaching nurses how to cope with these types of situations and their stress levels brought on by work. Amber Gum, professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department and psychologist, was one of the speakers in the series who talked about strategies nurses can use to deal with their work.
During her presentation, she emphasized the importance of applying the tools she talked about such as having moments of relaxation, supporting other colleagues and tracking the progress of their health.
“I believe [the program] can help to remind them that it’s OK, and actually a good thing, to take care of themselves — this [webinar] benefits them, and it also benefits their families, patients and coworkers in the long run,” Gum said.
“I believe it’s also valuable to remind them that, from a quote included in the presentation, ‘It’s OK not to be OK,’ and to recognize the challenges of this situation and ask for help when that’s warranted.”
Aside from the mental health effects, nurses have also experienced physical consequences from the pandemic. The long shifts nurses are working can also be detrimental to their skin due to wearing PPE for prolonged periods of time and having to wash their hands often. This makes their skin more prone to break open as it dries out. They can also get rashes from the perspiration the masks cause.
One of the webinars included strategies to prevent these physical consequences. Tiffany Gwartney, assistant professor and interim assistant dean of undergraduate and global programs at the College of Nursing, talked about why nurses should protect their skin to not only prevent injury, but to protect against the virus, too.
“Well, your skin … it’s a shield, for lack of a better way to say it,” Gwartney said. “So as long as your skin is intact, you’re not going to get things introduced directly into your bloodstream because your skin is [not] broken open. So you have to keep your skin intact as one of your protective measures throughout the pandemic.”
Drinking more water, eating well and resting are some health recommendations Gwartney gave in the webinar. Seelenbrandt said she has been applying some of the things she learned since completing the program to improve her day-to-day routine.
“I am actually bringing more water bottles to work with me and I have one full one in the morning and I make sure halfway through the day I have one and then as soon as my shift is over,” she said. “I did go back to the gym now that they’re open so I can get my exercise in, and I find that I’m sleeping a little better too.”
She said the series also reminded her about little things that can help her during everyday practices such as placing a pen in each room before starting her shifts or having a colleague make sure that all the clothes are protected with equipment. The most impactful lesson, however, was recognizing the effort nurses have been making this past year.
“I think that it was nice to have somebody supporting what we’ve been doing for the last year and caring enough to say, ‘Here are all the pieces and all of the tools that you need to get through this pandemic,’” Seelenbrandt said. “I feel like most of us nurses have felt quite alone in the travel through the pandemic, so it’s nice to know that there’s a resource out there to make sure that you’re doing the proper thing.”