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Despite 'Warrior Mentality,' Burnout Is Driving Some Nurses To Leave the Bedside

Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania State Nurses Association President Tarik Khan says the pandemic is leaving nurses exhausted, which could put patients at risk.

On today's program: After hearing from one nurse executive, we turn to the state nurses association to find out how nurses are coping with burnout; and three years after a devastating spinal cord injury, former Steelers player Ryan Shazier launches a nonprofit to help those with similar injuries.

Pandemic fatigue and burnout is driving some nurses to leave the bedside
(0:00 - 5:23)

Health care providers are seeing increased levels of burnout during the pandemic, according to a survey from the Physician’s Foundation conducted this year.

Tarik Khan, President of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, says in a relentless pandemic, it’s getting harder for nurses to feel safe even in their time off.

“So, unloading with your family, spending that time, it becomes difficult when you're working a lot and also when you're afraid of exposing your family,” says Khan. He cites himself as an example: “I’ve limited the time that I've spent with my parents, I don’t want to expose other people.”

Claire Zangerle, Chief Nurse Executive with the Allegheny Health Network, told the Confluence yesterday her staff have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), but they are facing a staff shortage that precedes that pandemic.

Khan says members of the association say facilities either have enough PPE or enough staff, but few have enough of both. 

“Nurses, too, we have a sort of a warrior mentality,” says Khan. “And there is a culture for nurses to go all in for your patients, shoulder that load, put your patients' needs over your own.”

This mentality, he says, can lead to burnout. “Yes, a lot of nurses are leaving the bedside.”

Khan says the CDC has suggested facilities with severe staffing shortages “consider implementing criteria to allow [health care personnel] with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 who are well enough and willing to work but have not met all Return to Work Criteria to work.” He says, however, the CDC leaves it up to facilities to decide when this policy is necessary.

It’s unclear what facilities, if any, are currently making these compromises.

But Khan says hospitals should adopt a policy that outlines when this “last resort” practice should be enacted. “Nurses are absolutely being put in situations where they have to question, ‘Is this best for patients or is this best for the hospital?’”

Khan says, however, despite the risks, nurses are best equipped to be in hospitals. He chalks it up to their training to be empathetic.

“Having a nurse that's able to empathize with [patients], that's able to give them that compassion, that's able to let them know that everything is gonna be okay, that I'm gonna be here for you, patients need that,” says Kahn. “I can’t think of a better person, a better role to be there with patients through this scary pandemic than the role of a nurse.”

Ryan Shazier’s using his experience to uplift other spinal cord injury patients
(5:31 - 18:00)

Friday marks the third anniversary of Steelers Pro Bowl Linebacker Ryan Shazier suffering a devastating spinal cord injury during a national telecast of the Steelers-Bengals game in Cincinnati.

He recently founded a non-profit to support others suffering spinal cord injuries, the Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation.

“The moment I got hurt, I was able to get the care that I needed and be able to overcome this crazy and terrible injury that I had, but a lot of people don't,” says Shazier. “I want to be able to allow people to have the same type of care that I was given. Just because I played football doesn't mean that I deserve care better or worse than that person.”

Dr. David Okonkwo, director of the Neurotrauma Clinical Trials Center at the University of Pittsburgh, says the level of care spinal cord injury patients recieve can vary widely, in part because what’s approved by health insurance companies may not compensate for the care recommended by health professionals.

“We also have a gap between what insurance companies will pay for these assistive technologies and what would maximize the independence and quality of life for patients with spinal cord injuries,” explains Okonkwo. “We want to give people their maximum chance for maximum recovery, but we also want to create the ideal set of circumstances for people to maximize their quality of life.”

Okonkwo says it sometimes just takes some extra care and support to achieve that quality of life.

Shazier agrees, saying he knows not every patient will get their life back as it was.

“I wasn't able to get back to being Ryan Shazier, the pro-bowler,” says Shazier. “I just want to focus on those people right now that want to be, you know, Sherry the teacher again, or Dev the mom.”

He says it’s not just about regaining identity, but also about finding independence.

In his journey to recovery, he says one highlight was dancing at his wedding a year and a half after sustaining the injury.

“It just was truly a miracle because just a year before, I was told that I might not ever walk again,” says Shazier.

Shazier announced his retirement from football on Twitter in September, saying the game gave him a life he could only dream about.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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