Long before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary, physicians, nurses, and other front-line health care workers were susceptible to burnout and issues such as compassion fatigue — a gradual desensitization caused by overexposure to death and serious illness. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the pressures, and Penn Medicine Princeton Health has employed a proactive approach to help staff members and providers receive the support they need.
Last spring, when the first wave of COVID-19 peaked in central New Jersey, the Rev. Matthew Rhodes, PsyD, director of Religious Ministries, and Michael Libertazzo, EdD, a Princeton-based psychologist, began making regular rounds on Princeton Medical Center (PMC) units that were caring for patients with COVID-19. Today, as the Princeton area experiences a second wave, Rhodes and Libertazzo continue to round several days a week on the COVID units and hold regular debriefings with hospitalists, medical residents, nurses, and other staff members.
"Our work focuses on addressing post-traumatic symptoms and moral distress, as well as facilitating team cohesion," Rhodes said. "We don't want people to be alone with their feelings about what they have seen, and we want to help them celebrate and be proud of the remarkable things they have accomplished in very difficult circumstances."
Princeton Health maintains a broader, related effort called the Wellness Ambassador program that is coordinated by Edward Callahan, HR client services manager and a former volunteer paramedic with the American Red Cross, and Kyle Bonner, coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion.
Under the program, members of the Emergency Department behavioral health crisis team visit PMC and Princeton House Behavioral Health units to check in with staff members, share information about services available through outlets such as the Employee Assistance Program and PennCOBALT, and try to assess who may need follow-up support.
Behavioral health professionals schedule individual, confidential meetings as needed. Team members include Bonner and Chrissy Isaac, a Princeton House community relations representative, both of whom are licensed clinical social workers and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselors.
The discussion during these follow-up visits is largely up to the individuals, said Isaac. People can talk about fears and concerns, or they can stick to lighter subjects, such as their favorite TV shows. The point is to give them respite.
"It's been humbling to witness how staff have put patients before themselves and held steadfast to their calling in so many ways," Isaac said. "We hope that introducing them to therapy in this way will encourage them to continue using these services as the dust settles and longer-term behavioral health needs come to light."
To help all Penn Medicine employees coping with stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues, Penn created COBALT, an online support system that provides easy access to a variety of resources. Learn more at https://www.penncobalt.com/sign-in.