Uneasy. Anxious. Fearful. Many of us feel these emotions daily from the constant updates on COVID-19 cases, unemployment claims, and even deaths. But what keeps us strong and united are the stories of courage, care, and strength. Stories from our front-line providers – our unsung heroes.
This week we are sharing a heart-wrenching story from one of Mary’s Center’s healthcare heroes as he sheds light on the pandemic’s impact on mental health and the importance of community health centers.
Report from the Field – April 20, 2020
Dr. Seiji Hayashi, Chief Transformation Officer and Medical Director
I walk into Mary’s Center’s respiratory clinic and hear a woman sobbing behind the make-shift curtains. She is trying to explain something to the nurse. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but the sobbing goes on for several minutes while I’m seeing another patient.
As I head toward her exam stall, the nurse stops me and tells me the woman has a lot of anxiety in addition to her fever and cough.
I kneel next to the woman and tell her my name. She is clutching her bag with both arms in front of her. Above the surgical mask she’s wearing, I see her red eyes still welling with tears. I gently ask her, “Are you okay? What’s the matter?”
She blurts out, “The dead bodies! I’m so scared! My friend now has coronavirus. I don’t know what to do! I can’t do this anymore.”
I gesture her to slow down and say, “It’s okay…Can I ask you some questions?”
She nods. I ask, “Where are the dead bodies?”
She says, “In the hospital. I work there, and I need to take them to the basement. They all have coronavirus.” She begins to sob again. “They make me take care of the dead people…”
My eyebrows go up. Oh my god, she’s a hospital worker that takes people to the morgue after they die.
I take a deep breath to catch myself and realize that I am re-traumatizing her. I tell her that I understand the situation and she doesn’t need to say anything else. I ask her if I can reach out to one of our therapists to help her through this, and she nods twice in agreement.
I message one of our Spanish-speaking therapists to arrange a virtual warm handoff and walk the patient to a private room down the hall. Seconds later, the patient’s cell phone rings, and the therapy session begins.
Every day, we have psychologists, clinical social workers, or other counselors standing by to accept immediate referrals from medical providers. Mary’s Center employs nearly 100 therapists, almost double the number of physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners, and we need more.
After 20 minutes, the patient comes back to the main clinic area, and she is calm. The brief intervention helped. I finish the exam and the nurse swabs her nose for the COVID-19 test. I give my usual precautions on worsening symptoms and when to call us or 911. I see that she already has a follow-up appointment with the therapist in two days, and I tell her that I’ll call when I get her test results.
That evening, I tell my wife, also a family physician, what happened that day. She says, “There’s going to be a lot of PTSD because of this.” I think to myself, I’m going to be one of them, as we have our 21st consecutive dinner on FaceTime.
The mental health impact of this pandemic will be enormous.
The losses will haunt people for decades. Loss of loved ones, loss of income, loss of stability and security.
The trauma hits especially hard for healthcare workers and their families, as well as many other groups –people with existing mental health issues, people forced to quarantine with their abusers, low-income individuals, and people of color.
That’s why Mary’s Center won’t turn our back on our community.
Our families need us now, and we are determined to break through the fear and isolation with compassion and innovation.
Thanks to the support and funding from partners like Bank of America, Mary’s Center invested in technology to expand our teletherapy and telemedical services, which make virtual warm handoffs seamless, as described in Dr. Hayashi’s story. We also invested in more personal protective equipment (PPE) for our front-line medical staff so we can continue to provide culturally competent, quality care to the elderly, the uninsured, and the thousands of struggling immigrant families.
Thank you to our front-line staff and to all the unsung heroes that support our families. Please know that Mary’s Center is here for you – now and in the future.