Keeping well during COVID-19 pandemic

Author(s): Holly Carpenter, BSN, RN

One nurse’s story.

When Sarah Oerther, MSN, MEd, RN, FRSPH, was selected for ANA Enterprise’s Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ (HNHN) #healthy­nurse spotlight in late 2019, she had no idea how her wellness would be tested in 2020. Oerther, who is completing her PhD and postmaster’s family nurse practitioner certificate at Saint Louis University’s School of Nursing, focused on health practices—such as sleep, hydration, antibiotic stewardship, and immunizations—in her spotlight.

When the pandemic shutdown hit in March, Oerther’s life was upended. Her courses switched to online. She and her husband began telecommuting for work and school, and her children were being schooled remotely. “It has been challenging,” Oerther said, reflecting on the quarantine with elementary-school–aged children.

In April, Oerther responded to an urgent call from Governor Mike Parson for nurses to volunteer for the Missouri Disaster Medical Assistance Team. In a few days, she was screened and onboarded, then deployed for 2 weeks to work in a psychiatric prison, an identified COVID-19 hot zone. Oerther’s assignment involved caring for psychiatric patients deemed incompetent to stand trial. She described this experience as one of her most fulfilling. “It increased my flexibility,” she said. “Putting my practical nursing skills to good use was deeply satisfying.”

In the past, Oerther always felt in control. Now she admits that the “new normal” sometimes creates stress and anxiety. The stress is layers deep: unable to obtain healthcare follow-ups for her children, her school schedule in limbo, social isolation, and, of course, the strain of potential COVID-19 infection. Friends or neighbors may want to get together, while appropriately social distancing, but Oerther feels she should avoid these gatherings. “I don’t want the anxiety of being known as a potential super-spreader,” Oerther explained. She also has had feelings of sadness, isolation, and extreme disappointment. Having frank discussions with her children and husband about the emotions they’re experiencing has been key in keeping the family grounded and learning a new pattern of life.

Oerther offers the following recommendations for pandemic coping and wellness:

  • Focus on others. Sincere encouragement is powerful. An email or text can change someone’s day.
  • Establish a new routine and habits. Oerther’s family eats breakfast and dinner together at the same time each day.
  • Practice excellent sleep hygiene. For Oerther, that means a prebedtime routine of showering, avoiding the computer, and reading a book for 15 minutes.
  • Rearrange your priorities. An immaculate home used to be a must for the Oerth­ers, but with everyone eating, working, playing, and being educated together, perfection has moved down the list.
  • Destigmatize your mental health. Acknowledge your feelings. Verbalize your anxiety and then work on how to decrease it.
  • Find stress-reduction strategies that work for you. Oerther finds comfort in religious songs. “Singing the old hymns has encouraged my heart,” she said. “It shows that people have gone through hard times before and survived.” Another stress buster is exercise. When her gym closed, she purchased an exercise bike and loves riding it.
  • Remain social and celebrate. Oerther’s family enjoys drive-by birthday parties and online worship services. On Easter, they drove to neighbors’ homes and sang hymns that were on the radio from their car. That’s a memory they’ll treasure.

Holly Carpenter is senior policy advisor in the Nursing Practice and Work Environment department at ANA.

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