The stress of caring for others is daunting already, even as an experienced medical professional, but the uncertainty of a pandemic increases that stress for many.
The increase in workload has taken its toll on New York City doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians, as they are encountering death on a daily basis.
The Army is stepping in to use their experience from combat stress in the battlefield to the mental and physical health of civilian medical personnel in New York.
Two military members leading this collaborative effort are Maj. Olli Toukolehto and Col. Brandon Pretlow. The collaborative partnership between the Defense Department, the Greater New York Hospital Association, the New York Fire Department has been created to assist healthcare workers maintain their own mental health.
Toukolehton and Pretlow are now using their military experience to formulate a plan and create online training to help the healthcare workers cope with the stress and pressure of working under pandemic conditions.
Maj. Olli Toukolehto, an Army psychiatrist and deputy chief of adult behavioral health at Fort Belvoir, Virginia spent time in Iraq in 2006-2007 on a forward operating base as a medical lab technician. He recognized the same fatigue on the medical workers’ faces when he walked into the Javits Convention Center, in New York City.
Col. Brandon Pretlow, 531st Hospital Commander from Fort Campbell, Tennessee led the medical unit that set up two deployable field units at the Javits.
“We’ve been at war for the last 18 years and we’ve learned a lot about traumatic-event management and combat stress control,” said Pretlow, who leads about 800 Army, Air Force and Navy doctors, nurses and medical troops assigned to augment 11 hospitals within the New York City Health and Hospital Network.
Healthcare workers are pushing their limits during the Corona Virus crisis they are often being pulled in as surrogate family members for their patients.
They often step into an additional family role as their patients face their final moments. They don’t have a lot of time before moving on to their next patient. “They haven’t really had a chance to breathe and process what they went through,” Pretlow said.
The residual stress is carried home to their own families and can increase the possibility of domestic conflicts in their own homes. This stress can lead to substance abuse, leading in some cases to domestic violence.
“People are obviously trying to cope with the stress, you know, in one way or another,” Toukolehto said. “And then when people are stressed out, their anger is more difficult to control because people are stuck inside … and they don’t have their usual outlets or activities or work.”
Once the resiliency training is developed fully, it will be deployed to 150 hospitals to assist health care workers to maintain their mental well being, while balancing their self care needs.