The stories and images that bombard us in the news and on social media about the COVID pandemic range from scary, to horrific, to confusing. At the center of it all are the healthcare workers; those brave and amazing people who are working tirelessly in our community’s healthcare facilities.
In this final blog of our COVID and Breast Cancer series, two local healthcare professionals, working in the cancer community, volunteered to share their experience with us. We are keeping their names and healthcare locations anonymous.
When the COVID pandemic started affecting healthcare in America, Sidney started working remotely, connecting with her patients through phone calls and virtual visits. “That is something totally new,” begins Sidney. “I am so impressed with how easily people have transitioned to virtual visits. They’ve said, “OK, this is how we have to do things, so I’ll get on board.’.”
Working remotely has affected Sidney and her patients in many ways. “As my clinic’s Social Worker, a lot of my patient and caregiver interactions are not scheduled but impromptu, often connecting with patients and family members simply because of proximity – I happen to be near when they have a question,” she explains. “I definitely feel like I am missing out on that, and so are my patients. There are things that people are figuring out on their own or they’re not asking their questions and getting them answered.”
Sidney has noticed that isolation is a huge challenge for her patients. “When people face a medical crisis, they want to gather their people, to be in connection with loved ones, That’s what’s comforting. That’s what feels natural for humans,” expresses Sidney. “COVID has taken away a coping mechanism that many of us have – to be around our loved ones, and closer than 6 feet apart, too!”
On the flip side, Sidney has also heard from patients’ family and caregivers that they are having difficulty as well. They tell her, “We want to bring food, we want to give hugs, we want to do all the things that feel like we’re really showing our care and love during their cancer crisis. And we can’t.”
During the stress and chaos of COVID, Sidney recommends being very gentle with ourselves and kind to one another. In the beginning of the lockdown, she suggested that her patients go on a “Media Diet. “Be intentional about media intake, as well as the sources and length of time consuming media. Patients are like, ‘I just spent 4 hours reading depressing articles that we’re all going to die!’.” Sidney exclaims.
Therese works as a Nurse Navigator, a healthcare professional who coordinates care across the many specialists, treatments, and procedures throughout a cancer experience. Fear and anxiety levels have increased tremendously for Therese’s patients since the onset of the COVID pandemic. As an example, Therese shares, “We had patients that were diagnosed with breast cancer just before the lockdown. Typically they would have come in to meet with a surgeon. They want to have that cancer removed – like, yesterday!” she exclaims.
She’s witnessed patients struggling with the isolation of having to go to appointments alone, patients not being able to have their surgeries or start chemotherapy, patients putting off preventative mammograms and imaging, and patients having their 4 or 6 month check-ups following lumpectomies and treatments being postponed.
“The anxiety that patients are experiencing and having to deal with has been taken up a big notch,” Therese explains. “Our work has become more like that of a therapist, and we try to have more phone interactions, checking in with patients, helping them work through anxiety issues about their new diagnosis or not being able to proceed with surgeries, treatments, and imaging.”
Therese has continued to provide that extra support for her patients, even as surgeries and imaging has resumed. “We’re checking in on patients more that we ever did before, ramping up all of the connections we make with patients on the phone.”
For Therese, nothing compares to face-to-face interactions and care. “I went into nursing to give patients the best care as soon as possible. As nurses, we want to help people get through and recover and move on with their life,” Therese reasons. “COVID is a barrier that is incredibly frustrating and challenging. I feel like I haven’t been able to give my patients the care I would be able to in-person.”
Despite the incredible stress of caring for patients during a pandemic, Therese remains optimistic. “I try to convey to my patients that this isn’t long-term and we’re here to help you get through this,” she says. Sounding a bit more emphatic, she continues, “I keep saying, ‘Take it one step at a time. As soon as we can do more, we will.’.”
Therese ends our conversation with a smile in her voice as she says, “The relationships I have with my patients have really been strengthened because of all the phone conversations and virtual visits!”
With great advice – to take things one step at a time, one day at a time – and even a silver lining – strengthened relationships with your healthcare provider – we end this blog series with gratitude. To all the healthcare professionals who are working so hard, in such stressful environments, to help us when we are at our most vulnerable, we are grateful. And to Therese and Sydney, we are simply glowing with gratitude!
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Written by Amy Tix, Firefly Staffer and breast cancer survivor, who is thinking that a Media Diet is the only diet that she could stick with. “Any diet with a net gain – in time – sounds like something I can get on board with!”