‘How did I tolerate that?’: Nurse reflects on decision to leave COVID-19 unit

Sadye Matula

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The COVID-19 pandemic has added more stress and mental anguish to an already stressful job, pushing health care workers to the brink — and in some cases, over it. Health care workers were already at a higher risk for career burnout compared to other jobs, […]

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The COVID-19 pandemic has added more stress and mental anguish to an already stressful job, pushing health care workers to the brink — and in some cases, over it.

Health care workers were already at a higher risk for career burnout compared to other jobs, but the pandemic has made things even harder. A survey from the U.S. News & World Report published in November 2021 found about 1 in 5 health care workers across the country had changed jobs since the start of the pandemic and mental health was a key factor.

Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated 60% to 75% of America’s health care workers reported struggles with exhaustion, depression, sleep disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder.

One nurse at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids said the constant grind was too much for her emotional well-being.

Bobbi Jo Whitefield, a nurse at Spectrum Health’s Butterworth Hospital, spoke with News 8 about her decision to leave the hospital’s COVID unit because of the impact on her mental health.

“A LOT OF UNKNOWNS”

Bobbi Jo Whitefield has worked at Butterworth for more than 20 years. Before the pandemic hit, she was a nurse on “Nine Center,” an inpatient floor, attending to adults with a wide variety of needs. But as COVID-19 made its way to West Michigan, it became the nonintensive care unit for COVID-19 patients.

Whitefield still remembers heading to the hospital the day after state health officials confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan.

“It was very scary,” Whitefield told News 8. “My husband and I, he decided he was going to start dropping me off at work and picking me up every day. He had a feeling that the days were going to be so long, and he thought that would be his way to at least help out a little bit. But that morning, when he dropped me off for work, we both sat in the car and cried because we had no idea, no idea what was going to happen.”

Michigan entered a tight lockdown in the spring of 2020, closing schools and restricting public spaces to try to limit potential spread of the virus. It kept our case count low, but the nerves were still running high in West Michigan’s hospitals.

“There was just so much fear, so much fear,” Whitefield said. “And as a nurse, you want to be able to comfort your patient, let them know that you have it under control, that you have the answers that are going to help them. … And there was plenty of times that I had to say, ‘I will try to find the answer, but much like you, I am learning, and the physicians are learning so much about this.’ And that was incredibly hard to do.”

CONTRACTING COVID-19

About eight weeks after Michigan’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19, Whitefield fell victim to the virus.

“I remember distinctly waking up one morning and going, ‘Oh, I have a heavy chest, a really heavy chest.’ And I’ve had pneumonia in the past, so I kind of know those symptoms for myself,” Whitefield said.

At that time, with so little known about the virus that her diagnosis sent a lot of people scrambling.

“There was so much panic that if, if you got COVID, people thought you were going to die,” Whitefield said. “I can just remember my sister calling me sobbing. My husband was just devastated. My daughter, I didn’t see her for 10 days because I just stayed isolated.”

Whitefield dealt with the symptoms that many patients saw from the original strain: body aches, loss of taste and smell, sore throat, cough, congestion and strong fatigue.

“I was so fatigued, but I was just so driven that I was like, ‘OK, you got to get up and you have got to go walk,’” Whitefield said. “You can’t be laying in this bed and be sedentary. … I was making myself get up and go outside and walk around my block several times, just to keep my lung function, you know, all of that working.”

BACK TO THE GRIND

Whitefield recovered and returned to work, taking care of patients and facing an uncertain future. Cases waxed and waned, but there was no clear end in sight.

“I loved working on Nine Center. I absolutely loved it,” Whitefield said. “Loved the people and loved being able to have and establish a relationship with patients that were there for several days in a row. That’s just my blood. That’s what I love to do.”

“We’ve been told our whole entire nursing career that you’ve got to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. And as much as we tried doing that, it was so difficult.”

Bobbi Jo Whitefield, nurse at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital

As the pandemic continued, patients’ fear and anxiety surrounding the virus eventually blended with anger and frustration, and health care workers took the wrath.

“On our floor — and I’m sure other floors experienced it, too, so I know mine wasn’t isolated — but the violence, the patient violence that was experienced on our floor was incredibly sad,” Whitefield said.

It wasn’t just verbal assaults, either. Whitefield said on many occasions patients would throw things at her, including bags of urine and vomit. Another nurse was hit with a cup of hot coffee. There were threats, too.

“The mother called me and yelled at me and said that if something happens to her daughter, she knows my last name and she’s going to (expletive) hunt me down and kill me,” Whitefield said. “All I could tell her was your daughter is safe, we are taking care of her. But I do, I do feel that. … For several weeks after that, I looked over my shoulder walking out to the parking lot.”

She knew she needed to make a change for her own well-being.

“I was tired. I was burnt out. I was even becoming a little desensitized because I was in it all the time,” Whitefield said. “When my daughter got COVID, I was like, ‘You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.’ And she did fine. … I just felt like I was getting numb to it, and I didn’t want that for my family, but I certainly didn’t want that to carry over to my patients.”

By the summer of 2021, stress had taken its toll on Whitefield and all of Nine Center. The unit experienced heavy turnover, creating job openings and forcing other nurses to pick up the slack.

“We’ve been told our whole entire nursing career that you’ve got to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others,” Whitefield said. “And as much as we tried doing that, it was so difficult. You know, if you had to pick up mandated hours, you were now working 48 hours a week, sometimes more than that, getting abused by your patients.

“I wasn’t sleeping well,” she continued. “I was gaining weight because I became an emotional eater. My family dynamics, my family took a toll because I was, I was getting burnt out and tired and cranky and all I wanted to do was to come home and go to bed. And then if I had a day off, then that day was spent literally on the couch, just trying to rejuvenate for the next time I had to go to work.”

MAKING THE MOVE

Whitefield eventually found her next job, switching units at Butterworth last November. Now, she works for the electrophysiology department for Spectrum Health’s Congenital Heart Center.

“I love the job,” Whitefield said. “There’s a lot to learn in that job and I have a great team that is showing me the ropes and are very patient with me.”

Now four months into the new job, she’s realizing just how traumatic it was working on a COVID-19 unit.

“No one has swore at me. No one has thrown anything at me,” Whitefield said of her new department. “It’s kind of funny. ‘Cause I think about that and I’m like, ‘How did I tolerate that?’ … I feel like I’m a nurse again. I feel like I can do my job effectively now. I feel like I can give that compassion again.”

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