Michigan hospital worker
Photo courtesy Jacob Halpern

“It’s kinda like being on the Titanic waiting for the iceberg to hit,” said one hospital worker, who now battles panic attacks from the stress of work.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — “Sometimes I wake up and start having panic attacks just knowing I have to work,” Jacob Halpern, who works patient transport at Butterworth Hospital, told The ‘Gander. “I actually took a two-week leave for my mental health recently. Most of us are having a rough time sleeping and have for a few months now, which doesn’t help.”

The pandemic has been compared to a war, and frontline medical professionals have been compared to soldiers. And like soldiers at war, those professionals are dealing with significant trauma and distress. 

Among the lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, the impact it has made on the mental health of Michiganders is one of the greatest. The ‘Gander reported on the ways the state of Michigan is working to address that legacy. But one area where it is most apparent is among health professionals.

SEE ALSO: The Grim Calculations Hospitals Will Have to Make During Coronavirus

We celebrated the essential workers. The Blue Angels flew over Detroit in salute to them. But now, those workers are left to new, lasting issues. 

The Trauma of the Essential Worker

Even before the pandemic, the mental health and wellness needs of healthcare professionals went underserved, locals said. Michigan Radio attributed this to an institutional culture of stoicism and self-reliance as well as a prioritization of productivity at all costs. 

Even before the virus blazed across the state, studies suggested that health professionals suffered high rates of burnout, depression, and suicidal ideation. 

“In the past, health care systems have not done a good job at all,” Jed Magen, chair of the Michigan State University Department of Psychiatry, told the Detroit Free Press. “In fact, they’ve minimized the stress and strain on health care workers.”

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Now, a once-in-a-century disease is further stressing that system. Halpern said morale has fallen extremely low.

“Stuff was hard enough already without a plague,” he said. “Now my very physical job has the possibility of getting me on a ventilator, and the insurance they give us isn’t even that good.”

Halpern said the access issues healthcare workers have in regards to personal protective equipment, which The ‘Gander reported on, were a significant concern for hospital workers. There is, he said, a serious concern about bringing the virus home. He’s been tested multiple times and so far has consistently come back negative. But the human cost has also weighed on him. 

“I see people on vents and grieving families talking to their dying relatives via an iPad in the hallway. It’s unsettling,” he said. “You hear and see about the east side of the state and how hard they were hit and it feels like only a matter of time until that happens to your hospital. Then outside of work seeing people not take it seriously feels like a guaranteed situation waiting to happen.”

Though Halpern has access to the protective equipment he needs now, the increasingly lax attitude Michiganders have toward the virus has quickly outpaced concern over equipment when it comes to what keeps him up at night.

“It’s kinda like being on the Titanic waiting for the iceberg to hit.”

Looming Dread About a Second Wave

Halpern said the thing he wants more than counseling, more than flyovers from the Blue Angels, is for people to do their part and slow the spread of the pandemic: to wear masks, practice social distancing, and avoid unnecessary interactions with others.

He’s far from alone in this. 

“When front line workers feel their efforts aren’t being supported by the public, for example by following social distancing, this can be very demoralizing,” said Srijan Sen, a University of Michigan psychiatrist who studies the mental health of physicians.

The fact that cases could be prevented in cities like Grand Rapids adds an additional level of stress to workers like Halpern, Sen argued. 

“Take this all seriously and stay smart and safe,” said Halpern. “I’ve seen a man die on a ventilator in person. It’s not how you want to go. Or for someone you love to go.”

READ MORE: This Hospital is Slashing 3,000 Jobs Across Michigan Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic

As for what Butterworth Hospital can do to help workers, Sen said the mental health service the hospital provides and access to protective equipment is useful but falls far short of the role the hospital needs to take in protecting workers and patients. For himself and his colleagues, Halpern called for hazard pay and job security, but he also feels that broader policy changes for patients are needed.

“They need to reinstate the no kids, limited visitor policy. Having all these people back in the hospital isn’t helping,” he urged.