Sept. 20, 2021 — Critical care nurse Beth Wathen has been looking after seriously ill patients for 35 years. But nothing could have prepared her for the last 18 months.
Wathen, who works in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said it is impossible to describe the overwhelming death and despair she has seen since COVID-19 began to fill hospitals to the brim.
“It is hard to know just how devastating this pandemic has been if you’re not in the ICU,” she says. “Seeing these poor patients dying without family at their bedside. Watching people say goodbye to spouses FaceTime.”
“This entire pandemic has been heartbreaking.”
The pandemic is taking even more of a toll on nurses than many realize. In a new survey, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses found that out of 6,000 critical care nurses surveyed, 66% have considered leaving their jobs because of the pandemic.
Sixty-seven percent are afraid of putting their family’s health at risk, and 92% believe the pandemic will shorten nurses’ careers. Of those surveyed, 76% believe patients who are unvaccinated undermine nurses’ physical and mental well-being.
“We know that nurses are leaving in record numbers now, but I was very troubled by these numbers,” Wathen says. “They should be concerning to everyone.”
The extent to which health care workers are suffering amid the pandemic has been highlighted by other research as well. A May study published in the journal EClinicalMedicine, for example, found that out of nearly 21,000 U.S. health care workers surveyed, 61% had significant fear of exposing themselves or their families to COVID-19.
Half the workers suffered from burnout, and 38% said they were dealing with anxiety or depression.
Nurses have always been a vulnerable group, long before COVID-19 filled the hospitals. One study found that, according to data from 2007 to 2018, women nurses in particular were at twice the risk of dying by suicide as women outside of health care.
“Nurses are feeling like we’re at our breaking point. But I am surprised by how large and overwhelming the numbers are,” says Amanda Bettencourt, PhD, president-elect of the association. “I’ve never seen this number of nurses considering leaving our profession. This was the stress test for an already stressed system.”