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COVID diary: Brunswick ICU nurse details her experience with burnout amid recent surge

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ICU nurse Cynthia Dalton works at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, and recorded daily audio diaries over the course of a recent week in January 2022.

Health care workers in Maine have been besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest surge in hospitalizations has pushed an already overextended workforce to the brink. To get a better sense of what hospital workers are facing, we asked frontline staff to record audio diaries. The first audio diary was submitted by ICU nurse Cynthia Dalton of Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, who recorded her daily diaries over the course of a recent week in January.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cynthia Dalton: The way that I typically feel driving to work in the morning is that I'm a firefighter running into the fire and everybody else is running away.

Between Sunday and Monday this week, we had four people pass away in the ICU. And that is a lot compared to pre-pandemic times.

The losses now are harder because they are younger people, maybe people in their 40s or 50s, even 60s, that's young— that's not old enough to be dying from something that is so preventable.

The phone is just constantly ringing off the hook. We aren't allowing any visitors in the hospital at all anymore. And obviously, families are calling to check in on their family members that are in the hospital. And we try to warn them that, you know, we can't field phone calls all day. We're busy, it takes a lot of work to keep people alive. And family members get frustrated. And they call repeatedly. They yell at us on the phone, they tell us that we're ignoring them. They ask us what kind of treatments we're giving to their family members. And then they argue with them because they don't think that we're doing needs to be done.

Then we have the patient population who is belligerent themselves. They are rude to the staff, they throw things at us. Sometimes they'll swing... I mean, it's unbelievable. They really believe that we're trying to do harm, yet they come to us for help when they can't breathe. I just don't know how to explain it.

It's 6:00 in the morning and I'm on the way to work. and I just wanted to share how I'm feeling on my way to work truly. I think it's going to be a rough day. I know that we're short at least two nurses. And on a unit where you staff six nurses and two are missing, it makes a big deal.

We have a unit full of really sick people. And ungrateful people. And it's really hard to maintain a positive attitude and keep everybody uplifted. So at the end of the day when I kind of gather my thoughts, maybe I play down how I feel on my way to work. So, this morning since I can't seem to handle my own emotions, I thought I would talk it out for a second. I feel nervous and anxious and mad. And we'll see how it goes.

Today I worked from 7:00 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. My shift is supposed to end at 3 p.m. but we are short staffed and extremely busy. Same old song and dance.

There was a lot of sad things that happened today that I will think about tonight. We have a very old, elderly man who has COVID and he's not doing well. He is struggling to breathe, and he just doesn't understand what's going on.

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"The losses now are harder because they are younger people, maybe people in their 40s or 50s, even 60s, that's a young- that's not old enough to be dying from something that is so preventable." - ICU nurse Cynthia Dalton.

As I was leaving his room, he said, he started crying and said, 'Please don't leave me in here all alone.' And it's heartbreaking. I mean, we can't stay in there with him. It's impossible. We don't even have staff to take care of all the patients so I wish I had somebody that could sit with him and just keep him company.

We have staff going out on mental health leave of absences. Because, again, this has been going on for over two years. It's relentless. And the things that we're seeing are so hard to deal with and it's happening at a higher frequency. It's happening so much more now.

Today's Friday, so I was a little happy to be moving on to the weekend because I get to have the weekend off.

We have a community member named Daniel Atkins, who has been a big part in keeping staff morale up. In the beginning of the pandemic, Dan started making chalkboard signs. He stood in the driveway at the hospital, in the mornings, and in the afternoons, at shift changes with signs that he made with different inspirational quotes on them.

He started showing up again lately. This morning, Dan was out there with a sign that he made that said, 'Hope is our superpower.' And every time I drive by him and his sign standing out there, when it's three degrees in at 6:30 in the morning, I can't help but get emotional about it. Because that little gesture of of those signs means so much to us. And it keeps us going, knowing that there are people like him out there.