Why some doctors, nurses are warning of ‘compassion fatigue’ in COVID-19 crisis

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Clinicians work on intubating a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital on August 10, 2021 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 surpassed another record in the state yesterday to 2,720 with Louisiana as one of the nation’s epicenters while the spread of the Delta variant continues. More than ninety percent of Louisiana’s hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Lake Charles Memorial currently holds 52 COVID-19 patients, 25 of whom are in the ICU. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) – For health care workers in states where the delta variant is causing the most damage, it can feel like they’re living in a recurring nightmare. Hospital beds are filling up, intensive care units in some states are completely full, and the cause is once again COVID-19. Except this time around, there’s not one, but three vaccines that could have helped prevent this.

That’s what has some nurses and doctors so frustrated. An obstetrician in New York wrote in the Atlantic that she’s seen colleagues venting on social media that unvaccinated patients shouldn’t be offered lung transplants, or should have to wait in the waiting room until all vaccinated patients are seen first.

An ICU nurse in Mississippi told MSNBC she’s transferring to a different unit. “I’ve seen more death than I ever thought that I would see in my entire life,” said Jen Sartin. “It’s getting to the point where we need help. We’ve been helping as much as we can and we need help from our community.”

They’re frustrated that people were given a tool to protect themselves from the virus, and many didn’t take it.

These anecdotes are a sign exhausted health care workers are at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue. They’ve become numb to the pleas of people in the ICU asking for every medical intervention possible to save their lives, after refusing to trust the science and help protect themselves.

“A lot of nurses have compassion fatigue,” an Arkansas nurse told CNN. She didn’t want to use her real name because she said some of her colleagues have been harassed by COVID deniers. “It’s extremely difficult to watch so many people die, and then have people tell you on Facebook or in Walmart that you’re a liar.”

“I understand it,” said Arthur Caplan, head of the medical ethics division at NYU School of Medicine. “They keep telling people to do the right thing. People keep coming in sick and asking for the vaccine and it’s too late. I don’t think the health care workforce will ever run out of compassion, but they do get overrun and burn out.”

Overloaded hospitals also have a trickle down effect some people may not think about. “I saw the governor of Texas said they should delay elective surgeries. That means the person who wants to get a knee replacement has to hobble around for another six months, or someone who wants a colonoscopy might not have their cancer detected,” said Caplan.

He implores people to trust the medical science before they’re very sick and get vaccinated, not just to alleviate the pressure on health care workers, but also to protect children who can’t get the shot and immunocompromised people who are still vulnerable.

“The whole ‘health care heroes’ thing, that was nice and everything. But that’s never what any of us needed,” Sarkin told the Sun Herald. “We needed people to wear their masks… now we need people to get shots. That’s how you show us you appreciate everything that we’ve done.”

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