Local doctors, nurses discuss their own mental health challenges amid pandemic

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Keisha Brown's team at UNC Hospitals is on the front lines.

"It's been a trying year, it's been a year of adaptation," she said. "It's also been a year of triumph and sorrows.


Brown is the nurse manager in charge of the pulmonary and infectious diseases unit where she oversees 70 employees and more than 30 patients.

"My staff has feelings of frustration and loneliness," Brown said. "They are lonely because in this pandemic they weren't able to socialize, they weren't able to have those usual outlets they have regularly."

In the last year, her unit became "the" COVID-19 unit.

According to Mental Health America, 76% of healthcare workers reported exhaustion and burnout during the pandemic. Seventy percent of them had trouble sleeping and some lost their appetite.

"We were everything to some of these patients, we were their families," Brown said.

She started a team huddle up every day during the height of the pandemic. Her idea was to not just to document how many patients they had with COVID-19.

"We knew we were facing different challenges -- whether at home or at work so I wanted to make sure everyone was in a safe place mentally and physically," she said.

The same survey showed nurses reported higher direct exposure to COVID-19 by more than 40% versus some of their colleagues. They were also likely to feel more tired.

"We, in most cases, had been away from our family," said Dr. Brian Burrows, who sent his family to live in the North Carolina mountains for the first eight weeks of the pandemic. "It was just this day in and day out of being exposed, never knowing if you were going to get it or not. We are fortunate to be at Duke University where we never had to ration PPE."
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Dr. Burrows is the medical director and emergency room physician at Duke Regional Hospital.

"I think I was initially afraid for myself but I was more afraid for humanity," Dr. Burrows said.

Both Brown and he agree that telehealth is here to stay in some capacity. Each also said they are better providers as a result of the crisis.

Brown said it also helped her to talk to a professional about what she was seeing every day. This was in addition to the countless programs UNC offered her for her mental health.

"Especially in my community because mental health subjects are somewhat taboo," she said. "We don't talk about it, people don't like to talk about their needs and they consider it a sign of weakness."
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