'It takes a toll': UNC ICU nurse copes with burnout, fatigue while caring for sickest COVID patients

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Things are as bad as ever inside Shawna Buchanan's unit.

"Our unit is taking care of the worst COVID," she said referring to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit or SICU at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill. "They're intubated, they are on life support. We hope they make it, but I think right now we have a 40% success rate."

One could understand this mom of three wanting to do something else.

She said the reason she comes back is for her co-workers.

"I wouldn't be doing this if we weren't all in this together and fighting the good fight together," she said.



Some healthcare workers say they have nothing left to give.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, about three in 10 have thought about leaving their jobs. More than half are burned out and six in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.

"With this Delta variant, it's worse in that it's reaching people who are younger, who aren't sick to begin with," Buchanan said. "To see that every single day, to be part of people's worst lives, every single day it takes a toll on your heart."

To get through things, she and her team have focused on adding some humor to their days in addition to an extra hug.

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ICU nurse Shawna Buchanan talks about the increasing stress level with ABC11's Josh Chapin.



They also get together to talk and digest what they've seen.

Her manager also got her whole team Alexas so they could bring some joy into a tough space.

"We're begging people to get vaccinated but also on the other side to be kind to one another," Buchanan said.

She got into nursing indirectly. She was a videographer but her son came to UNC for open-heart surgery when he was young.

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She was so taken with their care that she decided to switch careers.

In addition to getting vaccinated and talking about what she sees, Buchanan said she exercises and emphasized that there's no shame in talking to a mental-health professional.

"The burnout rate was high pre-pandemic, but the toll this pandemic is taking is very significant on our team members," said Katie Galbraith, interim president of Duke Regional Hospital. "It's always reminding ourselves why we are here. We are here for our patients, we are here for our community and reminding our team members of the difference they are making."
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